Call it a case of the seven-year itch. After that many years running Restaurant James Randall, which had become a fine-dining fixture in Los Gatos, chef Ross Hanson closed it -- ostensibly for a remodeling, but the website and Facebook page hinted at something bigger.

Two months later, an entirely new restaurant, Oak & Rye, with a very different concept -- casual, with a focus on pizza and small plates -- replaced it.

Hanson is still running the kitchen, but there's some new blood as well. Joining him are his sister, Dana Bunker, and her fiancé, Angelo Womack, whom he lured from New York. There, Dana worked at Mario Batali's Otto and Womack as a pizzaiolo at the very popular Roberta's in Brooklyn. Hanson's wife, Bree, also is involved in managing the business, so it's a true family affair.

Angelo Womack pulls the TMNT pizza out of the copper penny-covered wood oven at Oak & Rye Pizza in Los Gatos, Calif., Thursday afternoon, Feb. 13, 2014.
Angelo Womack pulls the TMNT pizza out of the copper penny-covered wood oven at Oak & Rye Pizza in Los Gatos, Calif., Thursday afternoon, Feb. 13, 2014. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Gone are the white tablecloths and genteel atmosphere. The split-level dining area now features light wood tables and banquettes, rustic copper light fixtures and an eclectic mix of décor from shabby-chic mirrors to a collage of album covers.

The scene is energetic and vibrant, almost to a fault. It's a struggle to carry on conversation in the lower dining room where there's a bar, a handful of tables and a standing-room-only waiting area. On the upper level, conversation is a bit easier.

It's here where you'll find the restaurant's centerpiece, a large wood-fired oven made by Mugnaini in Watsonville. The oven is covered in more than $100 worth of pennies -- Womack's idea -- that were applied painstakingly by hand.


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The oak-powered oven is inspiration for half the restaurant's name. The other half comes from the rye whiskey that features heavily on bar manager Ali Sell's list of cocktails, which is rife with pop culture references (as is the pizza menu).

We passed some time sipping cocktails (all $10) while waiting for our table, which can take an hour or more on the busiest nights. "De Niro's Taxi" features rye, lemon juice and egg white and, despite the name, is very well-balanced. The mezcal-smoky "Up in Smoke" gets a spicy punch from chile-infused tequila. It's not for the faint of heart.

Once seated, we opted to switch to wine, which is sold by the bottle or quartino ($13 for 8 ounces). The list is predominantly Italian and French, with plenty of good value.

We found the small plates almost universally excellent. Gnocchi ($10), a holdover from Restaurant James Randall, is a standout. Lightly pan-seared dumplings are served in a light cream sauce with kale and sausage redolent of fennel. Lightly spiced meatballs ($11) in a tomato sauce drew raves, as did the broccolini ($7) seasoned with red pepper flakes and freshly grated Parmesan.

Polenta topped with lamb ragu ($10) was so creamy, it all but masked the flavor of the grain, but was still a rich, satisfying dish that paired beautifully with the Dolcetto wine.

Rabbit rillettes ($8) were the only miss. The succulent meat was very good, but it came topped with a Thai salsa of lemon grass and cilantro that was muddled by too much acid. Although I appreciated the creativity, a more traditional pickle or mostarda would have been better.

Besides small plates, there are two larger entrees, including half a roasted chicken ($19) with crackling skin giving way to juicy meat with an almost velvet texture.

In New York, Womack had the city's famous water as a key ingredient in his dough, so his move west has found him continuously tweaking his recipe to get the results he wants. It seems he's getting very close to perfecting it. The crust is crisp but not brittle with a good chew and an even, Dalmatian-spotted char. It was consistent on each pie we tried.

One of the most popular is the Scottie 2 Hottie ($16), a red pie topped with sopressata salami, basil and honey. Although the sweet-and-spicy combo was alluring, the two didn't always come together in each bite. It was still a good pizza, though not our favorite.

Instead, the Bruce Banner ($15) was the surprise hit. Womack nails this one. Topped with mozzarella, baby greens, lemon and Parmesan, the pie was light, bright and totally delicious. I wish I could eat it every day.

Hanson's favorite is the Coach Goni ($17), named for the late Ray Goni, who coached him in football at Saratoga High. The toppings -- sweet sausage, earthy mushrooms, green onions and ranch dressing, with just the right amount of garlicky buttermilk tang -- are inspired by the pizzas Hanson ate after Friday night football games.

Dessert options are few (actually two): a good, if not memorable, pot de crème ($8) and affogato ($5).

There were a few glitches in service. On one visit, a slightly more expensive bottle of wine than the one we ordered was opened; the din in the dining room may have been to blame for that miscommunication. Another time, the table next to us had an excruciating wait for their order, which apparently was lost in the ether, thanks to a new wireless system. On both occasions, the staff made the extra effort to make things right, and everyone left happy.

Not all seven-year itches turn out with such great results, but in this case, it's an itch that we should be glad Ross Hanson scratched.

Email Jennifer Graue at features@mercurynews.com.

OAK & RYE

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303 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; 408-395-4441;
http://oakandryepizza.com
The Dish: Downtown Los Gatos fine-dining stalwart Restaurant James Randall closed for a makeover and became the more casual Oak & Rye. Chef Ross Hanson's commitment to quality food is still here; now, it's just more accessible in both price and atmosphere.
Prices: Appetizers and small plates, $4-$11; pizzas, $11-$18; mains, $19-$22; cocktails, $10; wines by the bottle, $30-$77; quartinos of wine (8-ounce pours), $13; desserts, $5-$8.
Pluses: The pizza crust is great -- crisp outside with a tender core -- and the small plates are finely tuned and almost universally delightful.
Minuses: They don't take reservations except for large parties (eight or more), so expect a wait, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. It's also very loud, especially in the lower dining room.
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.