April 23, 2019 – When news broke that longtime La Posta chef Katherine Stern had left the beloved Santa Cruz restaurant, there were ripples of apprehension by many regular patrons of the place. Stern had built up a robust following in her time there, which was almost as long as the restaurant has been open itself. But today, about a month after San Francisco chef Dante Cecchini stepped into the job, folks are reassured by his rustic Italian cooking.
“So, do you plan to find a place here or continue to commute?” I asked Dante Cecchini, the new chef at La Posta in Seabright, who has been driving over three hours multiple days a week from San Francisco to Santa Cruz since the end of March.
“It’s well worth the drive to get down here,” he answered, which was somewhat surprising to me, but then I realized that this vintage scooter aficionado, who owns several self-restored bikes, probably doesn’t mind the commute. In fact, he probably loves it.
The young chef, who was deemed a San Francisco Chronicle Rising Star in 2014, and has continued to build up a solid reputation in notable city kitchens, says that this last month or so “has been going really well…and I like the drive.”
But aside from the excuse to hit the highway on a fast bike, a major draw to taking the gig at La Posta was the people, most of whom have been working there since the restaurant opened thirteen years ago. “Something that was attractive to me is that the existing team is super solid. It’s a really good platform to dive in,” he says.
Yet, the menu has definitely changed to adhere to his more traditional Italian cooking, which he describes as “really simple cuisine”. The layout of that menu is classic, following the Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, Contorni and Pizze selections. And he is excited to promote that traditional experience, the shareable plates of simple, seasonal food. “I really want to encourage people to share things,” he explains.
So next time you find yourself at La Posta with friends, consider enjoying multiple dishes, starting with something like the chilled farro salad with radish, English peas, pecorino, spring onion, almond and pickled green strawberries or the asparagus with pea tendrils, speck, ricotta salata and egg.
Move on to a Primi like a classic Pappardelle with beef and pork ragu then consider a Secondi of roast Fogline Farm chicken with mizuna and marinated red onion. Supplementing with Contorni, like soft polenta with black trumpet mushrooms and Parmesan and Cippoline agrodolce with marsala currants and pine nuts. And definitely don’t forget the pizza. Like the Manila clam, pecorino romano, lemon, chili and oregano version, or the Ortiche with nettle pesto, ricotta, buffalo mozzarella and garlic. You get the picture.
If all of this strikes you as big a shift from former chef Katherine Stern’s cooking, you might be right. But chef Cecchini has heard from many regulars, the toughest critics, and says “It’s all been really positive. I totally understand that I’ve got really big shoes to fill, and I feel really welcome.”
Part of that welcome vibe is also partly due to our Santa Cruz vibe in general. “Somehow it’s easier in Santa Cruz,” reflects Cecchini about working in our community, even despite the long commute it takes to get here. “Everybody just has a much more humble demeanor. The people in the kitchen, the servers, the farmers especially…they want to get to know the chef.”
And for the city boy, who grew up cooking at his Italian grandparent’s house in North Beach, noting that work climate contrast between here and there is quite a statement. “It’s a different dynamic. It feels more special, more connected and it’s nice.”
Amber Turpin is a food writer and baker who homesteads in Ben Lomond.