I spent the first part of my adult life living in South Philadelphia. South Philly is a somewhat rundown part of the city that once was solidly – like, completely – Italian. Some traces of this are still present, such as the Italian market, some bakeries (especially Termini’s, which we’ll get back to in a minute) and a few restaurants, but overall, this former stronghold of everything American/Italian is now being taken over by immigrants from elsewhere, primarily China. The Italians have all left for the suburbs.
However, a lot of their restaurants remain. Dante and Luigi’s for example, where mobster “Skinny Joey” Merlino shot Little Nicky Scarfo several times. And Ralph’s, the grande dame of 9th Street and the Italain Market. In Santa Cruz, Lillian’s Italian Kitchen, on Soquel, brings it all back. This place is the real deal, or at least as real as possible in a beach town on the West Coast. It really does remind one of a certain kind of classic East Coast Italian place. And the food is great.
And, like a lot of the East Coast places, Lilian’s is a neighborhood, family place. It was opened by the Moreno family of Santa Cruz, with the goal of reproducing the food they made at home. There are really long lines for a reason here. And they do a thriving takeout business.
The restaurant is one of several on Soquel, right across from the Whole Foods/Rite Aid shopping complex. There’s plenty of parking – all you have to do is cross the street.
Address: 1116 Soquel Avenue, Santa Cruz, CA 95062
Dinner – Monday – Friday 17:00 – 21:00; Saturday 16:00 – 22:00. Lunch – Tuesday – Friday, 12:00 – 14:00
It’s a charming little room, that’s kind of an updated version of the kind of dining room you’d see in an East Coast restaurant. There are the usual old-time black-and white family pictures on the wall (along with a LOT of framed awards). However, what’s really interesting is the china – the table setting is sort of a modernized version of the classic restaurant table setting with, for example, bright red coffee mugs, plates that are rimmed in green or cobalt blue and orange. It’s a friendly, busy, bright place with modern touches – really nice.
Service: Because it’s a family place, the service is really good. Stuff arrives fast, refills are prompt, and the staff is cheerful, fast and knows what they’re doing.
Moderate -- $60 for two people, coffee and dessert, but no drinks. Large portions.
Really good Italian, done old-school style. This is just plain good food. We started out with a Caprese salad, described as “Local heirloom tomatoes served with burrata mozzarella, 14 yr old balsamic, fresh basil, oregano and extra virgin olive oil.” It was GREAT. The sweetness of the mozzarella contrasted beautifully with the acid of the tomatoes. The balsamic was wonderful, and the herbs set everything else off perfectly. Just a really good way to start an Italian meal, and executed perfectly.
For entrees, we first ordered the Entrée Salad with Grilled Chicken -- hearts of romaine and Spring mix greens, red onions, cherry tomatoes, roasted red peppers, carrots and parmesan cheese. Dressed with creamy balsamic pesto, red wine vinaigrette or creamy gorgonzola. This was a big, hearty salad, with a lot of chicken on it, and really fresh vegetables. Simple, big and great.
The other entrée was the “Sunday Gravy” which on the East Coast is known as “red gravy.” This is homemade meat sauce for pasta, the kind that spends all day simmering on your grandmother’s stove, and that the entire extended family enjoys on the communal Italian Sunday supper. Properly done, this sauce includes several kinds of meat, and Lillian’s was no exception – there was ground beef, pork, Italian sausage and spare ribs worked into it, and the result was wonderful. A complex, rich, deep sauce that wasn’t heavy, served over any of three kinds of pasta. We ordered ours with Italian sausage, which was split and grilled, and made a perfect counterpoint to the sauce. This was one really, really good pasta dish.
For dessert, we ordered coffee and cannoli. For those of you not in the know, cannoli is a tubular Italian pastry, which is usually filled with sweetened Ricotta cheese infused with chocolate chips. Because the pastry holds the filling, the whole thing goes soggy really fast, which means that a decent cannoli has to be filled on the spot – they don’t keep. The pastry also goes stale really fast.
This was the one place where Lillian’s fell down, just a little. The cannoli was not fresh – it wasn’t stale, but it wasn’t what you’d get at, say, Isgro’s Pastries in Philadelphia, which has been cranking them out since 1904. Still, it was a great cannoli, custom-filled with perfect ricotta.
An absolutely classic update on a traditional East Coast Italian place. Go, but watch out for the lines. Everyone else in the neighborhood knows about Lillian’s, too.Published On: Friday, August 16th, 2013