A friend and I stumbled across the Backstage Lounge Saturday night. We were walking down the Rio Theatre end of Seabright Avenue, with Charlie Hong Kong and the Crepe Place vying for our hunger, when we spotted the place. Or the place spotted us. On a recent mission to stop doing what we always do, we went in.
It was almost 10 p.m., but chef Lenny Calandrino was still cooking food. In fact, he jumped up from the table where he sat with owner Laurence Bedford and a glass of wine, to elaborate on the menu for us.
A little slip of paper listed the menu items with prices modest enough to make you question reality. Olive medley, $1. Salade with vinaigrette, $4. Pizza margherita or with dry salami and olives, $4. And Sliders, $3. We chose the salad and the salami pizza, and then settled in with a beer.
The salad came, a pile of lightly dressed organic greens with cranberries and a generous smattering of pistachios. And then the pizza arrived to really blow our minds. A little bit of olive oil took the place of sauce, which made it more like a rustic flat bread topped with asiago and parmesan cheese, olives and dry salami. To die for.
Calandrino is a self-taught chef, whose time spent in Italy and France have undoubtedly influenced his cuisine.
“I’ve been cooking all my life, for myself, for friends, for large groups. I love it. But never professionally,” says Calandrino. Calandrino was born here in Santa Cruz to Sicilian parents and worked as a waiter and bartender in various restaurants across the United States—Atlanta, Boston, L.A.
His cooking style pays homage to the Italian tradition he talks about—enoteccas (small plates to accompany the wine in your stomach), tearing a pizza rather than slicing it (the sliced pie is an American mutation) and most importantly, improvising a dish with whatever ingredients are in season and at your fingertips.
“I love proposing a dinner party for several friends and then going out in the morning to the market to see what’s there, without an idea what I’m going to do,” says Calandrino. “If you have a passion for cooking, it’s easy to put two and two together.”
Impressed with the pizza, we became curious and decided to try the $3 slider.
“We’ve been working on the sliders for five days,” says Bedford. The slider came on a hot little roll, with melted cheese, organic greens and a crunchy cornichon pickles. Slathered with Dijon mustard and a bit of ketchup, the little mini burger was food for the gods.
“All across Europe, even in Paris, sliders are the craze,” says Calandrino. The sliders at the Backstage Lounge are definitely craze-worthy, and a likely staple on the developing menu.
The menu will most likely stick to enteccas, says Bedford, who also owns the Rio Theatre and knows that the theater crowd is “non-committal” as far as dining goes. No one wants to lose their place in line. Bedford is brainstorming ways for folks to keep their place in line while they dine, and is even thinking about installing a webcam into the theater so people can keep an eye on what's going on while sipping their wine.
Monday night, while Ani DiFranco riles and lulls a full house, Calandrino will be next door serving a Macaroni and Cheese casserole—an original recipe by the mac 'n' cheese founder himself, Thomas Jefferson. He will also be throwing some delicious ingredient or other onto hand-kneaded pizza crusts, and, yes, the sliders from heaven will most likely be on the menu too.
Monday’s entertainment on the just-tuned piano will be provided by local musician and weekly Free Radio Santa Cruz DJ, John Malkin. The first musician to perform at the Backstage Lounge a few weeks ago was Thoth, who plays the violin and sings simultaneously—often in the language he made up from the countries he has visited.
“So he’s singing, and you think you understand it, and then he’ll throw in Finnish and French."
Visions for other future happenings within the deep blue walls include Movie Night, Trivia Night, Bingo Night, a Speak-Only-French Night and maybe an even a Don’t-Speak-at-All Night.
“Nobody is competing here. We want people to come to Midtown,” says Bedford of the entertainment-oriented section of upper Seabright, where the Crepe Place and Rio Theatre draw Santa Cruzans with music and movies.
The Backstage Lounge is at 1209 Soquel Ave., in Santa Cruz, and is open every night there is a show at the Rio.