Delectable Pieces / Matt Ward – La Strada: A Little Taste of Italy in Del Ray

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All the hype over the June opening of La Strada restaurant in Del Ray suggests how hungry Northern Virginians are for good Italian food.

Alexandria has several Italian restaurants, with Faccia Luna and A La Lucia being two of our favorites. But Del Ray has had little in the way of authentic Italian food. Now along comes La Strada, in the space occupied for more than 25 years by Los Amigos restaurant, and the denizens of Del Ray are lining up at the door.

La Strada is a family-owned and oriented restaurant. At its helm is chef Steve Scott, who has experience in the kitchen of two of our favorite District eateries, Zola and Galileo. The senior Stephen Scott is the friendly face in the front of the dining room and the chefs mother, Diana Balboni, works the room to be sure that diners are happy. Sisters Kristen and Courtney might well be the servers who attend to you.

From the outside, little has changed beyond fresh paint and the addition of patio dining, but inside there is little to recall the Mexican restaurant that took a chance on Del Ray when Del Ray was chancey.

Inside, diners first encounter the wall of wine that demarcates Enoteca, the wine room, where diners may purchase a bottle of wine to take home for 30 percent less than they paid with the corkage fee in the dining room.

In the dining room, pale yellow walls are punctuated by a poster and a few black and white still life photographs of market produce or a basket of octupi.  A purple wall separates diners from the rest rooms and kitchen area.

On the rear wall a black board lists the specials of the day under the hand lettered welcome,  “Benvenutti a la Strada.”

Fresh bread and olive oil help to stave off starvation while awaiting the main course. The bread is fresh and delicious (one suspects that  the nearby Gold Crust Bakery is involved); the breadsticks are crunchy and pleasantly cheesy.

One unique aspect of La Strada is that it offers most dishes, from antipasti through entrees, as individual servings or familiglia style, with enough for two at 50 percent more than the individual serving price. The latter is a good buy, the former somewhat pricey. The Zuppa di Cozzi ($8.95/$13.45) is a generous serving of mussels in garlic and white wine broth. Red pepper adds a little zing to the traditional favorite.

The fritto misto ($11.95/$17.95) is a platter of lightly battered calamari and lemon wedges with a couple of perfectly cooked sea scallops, slightly crispy on the outside and moist and bursting with flavor.  The mustardy sauce that accompanies provides depth and gentle heat to accent the delicate flavors of the fried appetizer.

The entrees were not as fulfilling as the antipasti, and what you order is what you get.  In general, the meat seems overpowered by their sauces. The unaccompanied Filetto all Diana ($18.95/$28.45) is exactly that.  No veg, no pasta, just a lovely-looking  tender eight-ounce beef tenderloin in a rich brown gravy thick with sliced mushrooms and redolent with garlic and rosemary. 

One of the specials, a generous rib-eye steak ($21.00), is tender and moist, but unequal to the powerful flavor of fresh tomatoes in the sauce slathered over it. In moderation the sauce is a complement, but to our taste, it defeated the gentler flavor of the beef.

The Spaghetti alla Becket (no relation to the archbishop; $5.95) seemed undercooked, the sauce bland, perhaps because we ordered a childs portion. The single meatball was huge and well-seasoned.

The linguini frutti di mare ($18.95/$28.45) fared better, with its shrimp, mussels, fish, scallops and calamari in a zingy tomato sauce resting on a bed of slightly overcooked house-made linguini .

Dessert is equally uneven. The ricotta cheese cake ($5.95) is pleasant and fresh, but the grainy texture is an unpleasant surprise.  Similarly, the tiramisu ($6.95) is uninspired. Not a thing in the world wrong with it, the traditional (and ubiquitous) Italian dessert is creamy and agreeable, but we would prefer Trader Joes.

Of the desserts we tried, the clear favorite was fig gelato ($5.95), fresh, delicately aromatic and surprisingly refreshing.

Two servers recommended the 2005 Cantele Primotivo ($30.00), ruby red and robust, with fruity undertones and a spicy floral finish. The primitivo was a superb and delicious match for the strong flavors of the spicy tomato-based sauces that prevailed.

La Strada has some kinks to work out, but they are trying hard and the neighbors are forgiving. The atmosphere is comfortable, the service attentive and the food is satisfying. We look forward to a more consistent experience a few months down the road, when the food rises to the level of the prices.

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