Matt Moreno and his family felt that something was missing in Santa Cruz: an East Coast-style Italian restaurant. So in 2007 they opened Lillian’s, named after the family’s Sicilian grandmother, born and raised in Yonkers, New York.
Going from working in the golf industry to restaurant owner/GM was a steep learning curve, but Moreno had Grandma Lillian’s recipes to fall back on. He defines the menu as “comfort food for the whole family”.
In addition to grandma’s recipes, local fresh fish specialties and homemade gnocchi stuffed with black truffles (with gorgonzola cream sauce) keep the place packed. Grilled tenderloin is another must. Traditional cannoli and tiramisu for dessert accompany an authentic New York-style cheesecake.
Moreno spoke to GT about his former life in the golf world and the woman who inspired Lillian’s.
How do golf and Lillian’s intersect?
MATT MORENO: Working for the local golf courses for eight years has really helped me form many friendships and relationships with pillars of our community, and now I see many of those same faces at Lillian. We truly pride ourselves on being a friendly, local neighborhood spot, and our staff go out of their way to build personal relationships with our guests. And in golf and the restaurant industry, you often fail more than you succeed, which helps me be patient and weather the storms that come with running a restaurant.
What’s the most Italian thing about Lillian’s?
On the one hand, the strong family ties and aspect – we are a totally family-run restaurant. I’m the general manager, my brother Chris is the chef and my mum and dad do the rest. Mixing business and family can often tear families apart, but it actually made ours stronger. It’s fulfilling and enjoyable, and it’s a blessing to work with people you love so much every day. And also, it’s very lively and upbeat and loud here in a very New York way. It’s a family atmosphere filled with wine, passionate discussions and lots of moving hands.
1148 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 831-425-2288; lilliansitaliankitchen.com.