By Carole Ehrler

We had just walked through the spectacular Roman Forum, and as we left, there stood a quaint ristorante that we had to try. It turned out to be one of our best and most memorable dining experiences during our trip to Italy. Maurizio's, in Downtown Morgan Hill, is very reminiscent of this very special memory.

Just five hours South East of Rome, on the Adriatic Sea, is Bari, Italy where Maurizio Cutrignelli was born and raised. He began his culinary expertise at the young age of fifteen at the state culinary school, Instituto Professionale Alberghiero di Stato Armando Perotti. Maurizio began as a waiter and a true believer that every server has to know about every ingredient in the menu items and how each dish is prepared. Maurizio worked all over Italy before coming to the States in 1993 to assist a friend and fellow Bari native at Casa Mia in Morgan Hill. Falling in love with Morgan Hill, as well as the families that dined together, in less than a year Maurizio open Piccolo, a small sandwich and juice deli where each item, even the juices, were made to order. This venture was extremely successful, and Maurizio soon outgrew the location. His next purchase was the Jack's Steak House location on Monterey Road, one of Morgan Hill's oldest businesses. Maurizio always builds and creates his locat ions from scratch, as he does his dishes. The large Maurizio's location was great until he and his wife, Sara, who was working as a server during her college days and majoring in health care, began a family. They decided to downsize to spend more time with their daughter, Floriana, and completely remodeled and opened their present location at 25 East First Street in February 2004. Floriana was joined by brother Michele.

I am a good Italian cook, but when we want authentic Italian fare, we dine at Maurizio's. Sara warmly greeted us with a huge smile. As soon as we were seated at the red and white checked linen-covered table, we were served the whole garlic cloves, fried in the lightest vegetable oil with seasonings, and bread hot from the oven. The garlic was tender and as sweet as candy. We perused the menu and began with appetizers of Cozze & Vongole In Quazzetto and Calamareiit E Ganberitti Fruitti. The Cozze was a fabulous bowl of plump fresh clams and mussels, which were steamed in a lemon garlic white wine butter sauce. The fresh, fresh shellfish was mounded on top of a lemon half with chopped tomato and sprinkled with fresh parsley. The spicy sauce was great for bread dipping! Maurizio, who was raised on the coast, is and expert in preparing seafood. The calamari and shrimp were served with spicy tomato sauce on the side. They were lightly breaded, so you could taste the flavor of the calamar i and shrimp. The breading enhanced the seafood and was not overpowering. Prepared to perfection, the seafood was crisp and not tough. Our server, Alberto, enthusiastically informed us about the Specials of the Day. You can always find Pesce del Giorno (Freshest Fish) and Zuppa del Giorno (Chef's Special Soup of the Day), plus other Specials, daily. The service was excellent, and our water glasses were continually filled, which is one of many restaurants downfall.

We selected a wonderful bottle of the Guglielmo 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon from a well designed wine list of local, California and Italian wines. We order wine we like and are not programmed to have white wine with fish and so-on. We loved the Italian background music, paired with the food, wine and all the Italian artifacts on the wall, and were totally transported back to Italy. Don't be shocked when you enter the restrooms and hear someone speaking Italian. You receive Italian language lessons, which is loads of fun!

We passed on the soup and salad selections, because we could have actually been satisfied just with the appetizers, but could not resist the entrees. We ordered the Cannelloni al Forno and the Sagottino di Pollo.

You cannot be in a hurry when you dine for dinner at Maurizio's. He makes every dish to order, so every ingredient is the freshest it can be, and he loves special requests. The cannelloni was fresh pasta, rolled and stuffed with house-made ground meat, a mixture of veal, beef and pork, baked and served in a tomato cream sauce. This dish was so decadent, I thought I was eating dessert and wanted to lick my plate. The Sagottino was a Chicken Breast stuffed with Italian sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh mushrooms, Mozzarella and Parmigian cheese, roasted and served in roasted bell pepper brandy cream sauce. This dish, with braised carrots and onions and roasted potatoes, was equally as delicious and savored to its fullest extent. For dessert, we delighted in Gelato Classico Authentic, imported directly from Italy. The Gianduia is a mixture of hazel nut and dark chocolate with shaved almonds, served in a lined chocolate waffle cup. We topped this off with a glass of excellent house port an d a cappuccino.

It is not unusual to Maurizio come out of his exhibition kitchen to take an order or serve a dish. He loves the challenge and creativity of preparing each dish at his guests' request. Sara and Maurizio make an exceptional team and you can see that their staff and guests are part of their extended family. Many of their guests are locals, but they also welcome guests from around world.

Carole Ehrler has been a restaurant owner, General Manager and Restaurant Consultant for over 35 years. She has been a food and wine writer since 1981 and a writer for the Los Angeles Times as well as being published in over 30 national and international publications. Carole has written for Wine Country This Week since 1985.
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