Lillian's. Mmmm. Photo by Jenn Ireland.

Lillian's. Mmmm. Photo by Jenn Ireland.

Lillian’s Italian Kitchen  In this age of chi-chi small restaurant dining, there’s something wonderfully unpretentious about Lillian’s. On any given night, waiting for one of only about 15 tables is a given, but most locals agree the Sunday gravy is worth every second spent under the heat lamps out front. Cozy and romantic, Lillian’s oozes Italian comfort with soups, pastas, sandwiches and meatballs at reasonable prices—molto bene. (Christina Waters)

Ristorante Avanti  When God comes to Santa Cruz, He goes to Avanti and puts His name on the list, just like everyone else. Avanti specializes in the country cuisine of Northern Italy with a California flair. Think fresh local organic produce, tender poultry and seafood and grass-fed beef rather than heavy cream- and tomato-sauce–based dishes (although the chicken cacciatore does have a cult following). A superb wine bar is stocked with adventuresome Italian and Spanish varietals as well as California wines, rounding out the appeal of this beloved Santa Cruz institution. It’s set to relocate to a new Westside location in spring 2012, so check Santa Cruz Weekly and for updates. (Penelope LaFontaine)

Ristorante Italiano  Nothing satisfies like Italian comfort food. When you’ve got a craving for tender cheese ravioli smothered in a hearty sauce or a rich alfredo to chase the blues away, Ristorante Italiano delivers in spades. Festooned in twinkling white lights and offering heated outdoor patio seating as well as charming greenhouse seating, it’s the no-fuss destination for folks with a hankering for the real stuff. (PL)

La Posta  Before coming to this charming Seabright eatery with its chicken coop out back and its stunning list of Italian wines, chef Katherine Stern worked in a two Michelin-star restaurant in Italy. That’s our good fortune, because it means we get superb Italian charcuterie and homemade sausages, handmade pastas, creative pizzettas and stunning treatments of contorni like roasted fennel and celery root tossed with Sardinian mullet roe. You’re not going to get thatat Olive Garden. (PL)

Café Mare  One of the prettiest rooms in downtown Santa Cruz (the wall of windows looks out on a sunken garden and street view), the dining room at Café Mare also offers some of the most gracious service in town. Classic Italian specialties like penne gratinate, gnocchi, veal saltimbocca and zuppo Mediterraneo arrive on a wave of Italian hospitality, with rich, evocative flavors and surprisingly light sauces, making this one of the best-kept secrets in downtown dining. (PL)