Though Convivo occupies the ground floor and patio of the recently renovated Santa Barbara Inn, Chef Peter McNee doesn’t want that to define the new restaurant, which he co-owns with Larry Mindel, founder of the upscale Il Fornaio chain. “We are not a hotel restaurant,” said McNee. “We’re a restaurant that’s located just across from the beach. I couldn’t be luckier to look out every day at the ocean. So come over and have lunch and dinner, from salad to pizza to pastas to crudo. There are a lot of different directions you can go.”
“Nomad Italian” is how McNee sees this menu. “When [hotelier Richard Gunner] created this kind of Casablanca, almost Moorish hotel, we knew we wanted to do Italian but evolve,” he said. “We explore how other cultures influenced Italian culture, so there’s Spain, Portugal, North Africa. Ultimately the goal is to be playful and not to take ourselves too seriously. We want to be provocative and fun.”
For instance, the menu kicks off with “Cicchetti: Earth & Sea” appetizers meant to get the table even hungrier. Those can be familiar ingredients made in unfamiliar ways, such as the summer corn sformatino, a kind of custard. “Everyone loves corn,” he said, “but it’s nice to turn it into a dish where you know you’re having corn, but there’s some technique there.” Currently it comes with cherry-tomato confit, shishito peppers, and Santa Barbara urchin. “I like the earth and the sea on the same dish, and it’s kind of playful with the uni,” he said. (The amazing light fixtures, incidentally, look like giant urchin shells — good thing there are no trampolines in the dining room.)
Convivo’s guiding rules are in-season and house-made, including both pasta and the donuts at weekend brunch, with many dishes — not just the pizza and za’atar flatbread — coming from the wood-burning oven. “The menu should be in a state of constant flux,” promised McNee. “It keeps us on our toes, allows for creativity, allows us to work in new ingredients.” Take za’atar: While it’s always a “crunchy and cracky” flatbread with Middle Eastern spices, it comes with a different accompaniment nightly. Think labneh, hummus, and pepperonata. With the current bounty of summer, McNee half-joked, “It’s more about not messing things up.”
As for that name Convivo, it’s “not even Italian; it’s Latin,” explained McNee. “It means feast, the entrée.” So when in doubt, go for something truly Florentine: the bistecca, a 38-ounce, charcoal-grilled porterhouse steak. But you better bring a friend or two.
Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. daily, 901 East Cabrillo Boulevard, (805) 845-6789, convivorestaurant.com