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Benvenuti a Casa Nostra

Welcome to Casa Nostra, destination dining in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Three friends bring authentic Italian cuisine to Ben Lomond, a “magical place” in the middle of the San Lorenzo Valley.

According to Mario Ibarra, his friend and partner Raffaele Cristallo wanted to “bring a little bit of Italy to the San Lorenzo Valley.” Along with third partner Pasquale Bianco, they’ve certainly done just that with their newly opened Italian restaurant, Casa Nostra (Our House).

Complete Renovation

You’ll feel right at home the minute you walk into Casa Nostra, completely renovated from the previous occupant, Ciao Bella. The restaurant was gutted and cleaned top to bottom. A new tile floor was laid, tables and chairs of dark polished wood were arranged in the two adjoining dining rooms, and vibrant and interesting art was hung on the freshly whitewashed walls, all resulting in a cozy rustic elegance.

Guests can enjoy a drink at the well-stocked wine bar while perched on chrome and bright-orange upholstered stools. Drinks include Italian sodas, espresso, beer, and Italian and California wines.

Adding to the friendly atmosphere are the sounds of the warm Italian language spoken fluently by all three partners. “Customers love to hear Italian,” Mario said.

While the inside of the restaurant is open for business and packed with happy customers most nights, renovations are continuing outside. One of the pleasures of the Santa Cruz Mountains is dining outside in the warm summer evenings, and summer 2013 should bring a welcoming patio directly behind the restaurant and extending along one side. You’ll have your choice of dining under a magical area beneath a circle of redwoods or a strategic table near the outdoor wood-fired pizza oven, complete with a chef serving up fresh hot pizza.

Experienced Restaurateurs

The three friends each have extensive experience cooking and managing restaurants, and their expertise shows in the food and service at Casa Nostra.

Raffaele has managed four restaurants, including Oak Tree Ristorante in Felton. He originates from Puglia, a region comprising the “heel” of Italy’s “boot” and known for its exceptional cuisine.

Pasquale has been cooking for 18 years, starting out at a young age in his hometown of Naples, Italy.

Mario is originally from La Paz, the capital of Baja California and located on a large bay on the Sea of Cortes. He met Raffaele and Pasquale in 1997 and fell in love with all things Italian. “I loved the language, the traditions, the family-style dinners, all similar to Mexico,” he said. He learned the language in one year, and now speaks it fluently. When speaking English, you can hear the Italian lilt in his words. He has 15 years’ experience in the restaurant world, working at Star Bene for 10 years. He now also owns Ristorante da Mario in Saratoga, another delightful Italian restaurant.

Recipes from Mamma’s Kitchen

Mario said all the dishes on the menu are from Italy. For instance, the Involtini al Sugo—veal rolled with pancetta, garlic, pecorino and homemade tomato sauce—is a recipe from Raffaele’s mother.

The night I visited the restaurant with my husband and two friends, we enjoyed an amazing meal.

We started with the Polenta ai Funghi appetizer, polenta covered with a variety of sautéed mushrooms. This is an incredible dish that I’ll have a hard time resisting my next visit. The polenta was creamy and cheesy, but the cheese didn’t over-power the delicious corn flavor of the polenta, and the mushrooms turned the deceptively simple dish into an extraordinary savory delight.

Next we shared two salads: the Spinaci--spinach, caramelized onions, balsamic-cashew dressing and goat cheese—an unusual and tasty take on the spinach salad; and the Caprese—sliced fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil.

For entrées, we stuck with the pasta (Primi) menu, though there’s also a Secondi menu with such choices as the Involtini al Sugo mentioned above; pork medallions in an onion, brandy and cream sauce; and tilapia filet with Kalamata olives, capers and fresh tomatoes.

The pastas were heavenly: Ravioli del Bosco--porcini mushroom ravioli in creamy truffle sauce; Pasta con la Salsiccia--mushrooms, broccolini, spicy peppers and savory Italian sausage; and Pasta alla Bolognese—a tomato sauce slow-cooked with pork and beef. (Many versions of Bolognese include a bit of milk or cream added to the sauce, and Casa Nostra’s had an extra creaminess.)

Casa Nostra works with local suppliers to use as much local, organic ingredients as possible. They also offer low-carb dishes and gluten-free pasta.

Leave room for dessert! The choices include tiramisu, panna cotta and chocolate cake.

A wonderful way to warm up on these cold winter evenings, make your way to Ben Lomond and the fabulous addition to Santa Cruz Mountain dining, Casa Nostra.

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