As your nose is lured by the familiar smells of Italian dishes from Puglia and Piedmont to Rome and Liguria steadily wafting out from the bustling kitchen at Tre Lune, your eyes will likely turn to the Montecito ristorante’s decor to enjoy another sort of trip.
Outside, on the patio that was expanded during the pandemic to nearly double the restaurant’s volume, there are photographs from across Italy, bringing scenes of Sorrento, Capri, and elsewhere to the sidewalks of Coast Village Road. “It just adds this special ambiance,” explains restaurant manager Leslee Garafalo of the strategy. “Our whole concept was that if people couldn’t travel to Italy, we’d bring Italy to them.”
Inside, the black-and-white photos of Hollywood A-listers during past golden ages provide a different sort of transportive experience: that one is surrounded by glitz and glamour while tucking into that tortellini and tiramisu. In fact, you may be graced by the presence of real-life celebs too, though many of the restaurant’s moneyed clientele don’t recognize, or care, that a Kardashian is seated to their left.
But what drew my eye were the elf-sized seats that lined the top of the interior walls, each adorned with someone’s name, or nickname. “We have close to 300 chairs on the wall for our customers who love eating here and who’ve been eating here for years,” said Garafalo of these tiny odes to loyalists, many of whom started coming when the restaurant opened in 2003. “We like to thank our customers, and they get a kick out of it.”
Credit: Alexandra DeFurio
How does one achieve such honor? Garafalo said that the formula is not set in stone, but that Tre Lune’s owner, Gene Montesano — the blue-jeans mogul turned restaurateur who also started Lucky’s Steakhouse a few blocks away on Coast Village Road and owns D’Angelo Bakery and Joe’s Café in downtown Santa Barbara as well — claims one primary criteria: “If you’re cool.”
I don’t make it down that way enough to qualify for such judgement myself, but I could immediately see why so many return repeatedly to Tre Lune for lunch, dinner, and the Friday-to-Sunday brunch, billed as “Montecito’s best breakfast.” The menu is sprawling, offering a bit of Italy for every palate, from those seeking simple salads and pizzas to vegetarians and vegans to those ready to splurge on dishes that remind of pre-pandemic vacations: delicate veal doused in a tangy, caper-studded Milanese sauce; addictive gnocchi swimming in savory truffle cream; fettucine with lobster and porcini in a saffron-laced tomato base.
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During my lunch, I counted 24 pasta dishes, 16 meat and fish options, and five specials, as well as the more than one dozen options on each of the pizza, salad, and antipasti sections. This is to say nothing of the cocktail or wine list, which is completely Italian except for one Santa Barbara County rosé.
As Garafalo served me her smoked tuna salad, that truffle gnocchi, and more, she poured single-ferment prosecco from Le Contesse, gavi by Villa Sparina, the Mysterium barbera by Tenute Montemagno, and higher-altitude pinot nero from Abbazia di Novacella in Alto Adige. (We didn’t get into the reserve cellar of Tignanello and Sassicaia — it was just lunch, after all.) To me, such deep wine and food menus seem like a constant challenge for cooks to nail each dish every time and for servers to speak knowledgeably about so many things. But the Tre Lune model apparently works.
“We looked at scaling back during the pandemic,” said Garafalo, noting that cacio e pepe and the salmon with lemon and capers remain top favorites. “But everything sells. It’s unbelievable.” She also ensures that the ever-changing wine list is supported, explaining, “It’s really important that my staff tastes and enjoys every wine, so that they can sell it.”
Credit: Alexandra DeFurio
Keeping the quality consistent is a dedicated staff led by Chef Luis DeLeo, including many who have worked there for more than a decade. “Everyone who works at Tre Lune has this passion, and it deepens over the years,” said Garafalo, who was raised in Westlake Village but worked in Denver restaurants for many years before coming to Tre Lune in 2014. “We’re united and a family here.”
That family was given a serious compliment the night before I visited, when an out-of-town customer had returned with extremely high hopes for the meal, fearing that he was remembering his past Tre Lune experience a bit too fondly. He was more than pleased, reporting to the staff that the evening’s meal exceeded his lofty expectations. “Your food is just as good as food on the Amalfi Coast,” he told the staff, “if not better.”
1151 Coast Village Rd., Montecito; (805) 969-2646; trelunesb.com