Maurizio's: Good Italian food in Morgan Hill
Maurizio's Welcomes Customers like Family, Serves Flavorful Fare
By Aleta Watson
Mercury News Review - November 18, 2007

By the time my companion and I arrive at Maurizio's on a Friday night, the party is going strong. Every table squeezed into the quirky little storefront is full, and two people are sitting on stools at the counter, talking to chef and owner Maurizio Cutrignelli while he cooks.

Laughter and animated conversation fill the air, competing with Dean Martin in the background, as hostess Sara Cutrignelli - the chef's wife - rushes to greet us at the door. Our table will be ready in a couple of minutes, she assures us with a warm smile. Would we like a glass of wine while we wait? Red or white?

With a welcome like that, it's hard not to like Maurizio's in downtown Morgan Hill. It's as close as you'll come to the spirit of a trattoria familiare outside of Italy. The food is simple, flavorful and cooked with care.

Cutrignelli, a native of Bari on the Adriatic coast of Italy, has been a culinary force in Morgan Hill since he arrived Oct. 30, 1993, to wait tables for a friend at an Italian restaurant in the South County suburb. Eight months later, he opened Piccolo, a tiny deli, where he served panini and gelato.

He moved up to a full restaurant bearing his name in a little house in 1996 and then bought a 300-seat space on Monterey Street some two years later. That proved to be too much. "I was unable to see the people anymore," he says.

So in 2004 he downsized to the 49-seat location on East First Street, decorated in a exuberant mishmash of Italian advertising posters, family snapshots and curios. He once again can greet patrons as they come through the door, cook special dishes to order for his regular customers and wander among the tables chatting with diners.

"I can see everybody," he says. "I know almost everybody."

It's that personal touch that makes a meal at Maurizio's. The chef and his friendly staff want you to have a good time, and it shows.

The fresh Italian food, cooked to order, also keeps diners coming back. The small menu runs to traditional Italian dishes, from bruschetta with tomatoes and basil ($6.75) to spaghetti alla puttanesca ($15) and sagottino di pollo ($19), chicken breast stuffed with sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, mushroom and cheese. Flavors are lively, and portions are large.

The eclectic wine list includes more than a dozen vintages by the glass, all reasonably priced at $8 or less, and nearly 20 Italian wines, in addition to an interesting cross section of California wines. At $6 a glass, the simple, fruity house Chianti Colli Senesi from San Gimignano is a good match for much of the menu.

A warm start

Dinner starts with warm, crusty ciabatta from Golden Sheaf bakery in Watsonville - baked off in-house throughout the evening - and a small dish of whole garlic cloves cooked slowly in vegetable oil with bay leaves and peppercorns. The garlic is mellow and buttery, an excellent partner for the bread.

Calamari and shrimp ($11), dusted in flour and fried to a pale gold, were tender and the accompanying marinara was nicely spicy on one visit. But the lightly dressed Caesar salad ($4) was dull and forgettable. The warm spinach salad ($6) with crisp bacon, shavings of Parmesan and a creamy red wine vinaigrette that we tried on another evening is a better choice.

Some of the best dishes we sampled were from the pasta section. The special one night was tender little pasta purses known as fiocchi or bandolini, stuffed with sharp Asiago cheese and sweet roasted pears ($16). Served in a pool of luxurious Gorgonzola sauce, they were so good, it's hard to accept that Cutrignelli buys them frozen from Italy. They met their match in the decadent rotelle ($16) - silky house-made pasta sheets rolled around ricotta cheese, blanched spinach, Parmesan and mozzarella; sliced into rounds; and baked with more mozzarella in a tomato sauce touched with cream.

Vitello Marsala ($19), one of the restaurant's most popular dishes, was delicate and tender, the thin slices of veal blanketed in a wine-laced sauce and a plethora of sauteed mushrooms. Only the extremely salty gnocchi with Gorgonzola detracted from the pork tenderloin ($22), which was wrapped in pancetta before grilling.

Excellent rib-eye

Yet no dish even came close to the bistecca alla Fiorentina ($25), a thick, freshly cut Angus rib-eye steak grilled in the Tuscan manner to showcase the pure flavor of high quality meat. Simply seasoned with Italian sea salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil, it was crusty on the exterior, bright pink and wonderfully juicy within.

After such a pleasant meal, the dessert course (all $6) felt like an afterthought. Most selections are imported frozen from Italy, and they're not bad. We liked the chocolate tartufo, which resembles an enormous gelato truffle enfolding a zabaglione center. But the cannoli shell, shipped from the East Coast and filled at the restaurant, was rock hard and the ricotta filling gummy. Even the homey tiramisu, which is made in-house, was no match for the savory side of the menu.

Still, there's plenty to like at Maurizio's. It's no wonder Cutrignelli has built such a loyal following in a town with so few good restaurants.

Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.
Copyright 2007 San Jose Mercury News

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