By Samantha Miller
April 29, 2002 12:00 PM

The bride wore flip-flops and an off-the-rack satin-chiffon dress. The groom wore a black Calvin Klein suit—not that Benjamin Bratt needed designer duds to dazzle. “He looked as handsome as he is,” says Becky Burgoon, one of about 20 close friends and relatives who watched Bratt and his girlfriend of seven months, actress Talisa Soto, exchange self-written vows on a grassy hillside overlooking the ocean in Bratt’s hometown of San Francisco on April 13. The supporting cast included their mothers: Clari Soto walked her daughter down the aisle to the strains of traditional Peruvian flute music (Soto’s father, Hector, was unable to attend); not to be outdone, Bratt’s mom, Eldy, 65, who is deputized to perform civil marriages, officiated at the ceremony and arranged Soto’s bouquet of white roses. Guests weren’t surprised. Bratt and Soto, who became secretly engaged in February, are “both very family-oriented,” says Burgoon. “Family has special meaning for both of them.”

Especially now. According to friends of the couple, Soto, 35, is in the early weeks of pregnancy. That comes as no shock to those close to them, considering both have often expressed their desire to fast-track a family of their own. Last May, Bratt, 38, and Julia Roberts, 34, called off their nearly four-year romance in part because of Roberts’s reluctance to do just that. The same issue contributed to the 2000 breakup of Soto’s three-year marriage to actor Costas Mandylor, 35.

Cast as lovers in last year’s movie drama Piñero, Bratt and Soto got to know each other while filming in 2000—and their bond blossomed into romance when, both unattached, they met up for the movie’s premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival in September. “It started as a friendship, and little by little, they found they had something in common,” says Soto’s friend Nicky Corello, an actor. “They were not obsessed by showbiz.” Five months later, in late February, Bratt popped the question. Soon after, Soto—a former model from Brooklyn who kicked off her movie career as a Bond girl in 1989’s Licence to Kill—called her pal Burgoon, vice president of New York City’s Click modeling agency, to say “her dream had come true,” Burgoon says. “It just happened really fast. She is so full of happiness and excitement about their future.”

As for Bratt, “it’s like being in love for the first time,” he told reporters last month. “It has also been very quiet and low-key, which has suited us both.”

The pair kept their betrothal and wedding on the QT. Even Roberts, now dating cameraman Danny Moder, 33, didn’t learn about it until days later. “It was important to them that it was an intimate wedding with just the family,” Burgoon says. Bratt’s brother Peter, 39, served as best man; Soto’s sister Clara was maid of honor. In lieu of a reception, guests adjourned to a nearby restaurant for dinner. (For an April 12 bachelor party, Bratt and five pals fueled up at the Slanted Door, a Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District, before announcing plans to hit some nightclubs.)

The newlyweds plan to shuttle between New York City, where both now have apartments, and a San Francisco home that Bratt bought to be closer to his family after he left TV’s Law & Order in 1999. His Peruvian-born mother, an activist for Native American causes, raised Bratt and his four siblings solo after her divorce from Benjamin’s father, a sheet-metal worker, when Benjamin was 4. “He’s a family man, the archetypal male who wants to provide,” says a friend. “He’ll be an incredible father.”

Like Bratt, Soto—who loves to cook Italian and Puerto Rican food and play poker (“She hates to lose,” says Corello)—has had plenty of practice doting on nieces and nephews. The youngest of four children of Puerto Rican-born Clari, a retired nutritionist, and Hector, she started modeling at 15, later landing on the covers of Vogue and Mademoiselle. But “she didn’t get caught up in that world,” says her acting coach Janet Alhanti. “Her feet were always solidly planted on the ground.” She went on to low-profile roles in the likes of 1992’s The Mambo Kings and 1995’s Mortal Kombat, but by the time she wed longtime beau Mandylor (of TV’s Picket Fences) in 1997, “career was not her priority,” says Alhanti. “It was a choice she made. Marriage meant husband, home and family.” But they split three years later. “He was always going away on location,” says Corello. “She was gearing up for children, and it never happened.” Ditto for Bratt, who told Latina magazine after his split with Roberts that he was looking for a “maternal” woman, “because if I’m with her, my intention is to make her the mother of my children.”

Now he and Soto can try for a Bratt pack. “He’s an old-fashioned guy,” says his Law & Order pal Jerry Orbach, “and I guess he’s finally found the right girl.”

Samantha Miller

Sharon Cotliar in New York City, Johnny Dodd and Melissa Schorr in San Francisco and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles