Epicurious Eating: Trattoria La Strada
Watching the world go by at Trattoria La Strada
Published Thursday, 09-Jul-2009 in issue 1124
It’s easy to presume that a restaurant occupying prime real estate in the heart of the Gaslamp District would forgo quality and bank instead on its location to lure consumer traffic. There are certainly enough of such restaurants pandering to tourists and conventioneers, who in their festive Downtown crawls, tend to blindly excuse slapdash service, costly steaks and rubbery seafood.
Many of us have less forgiving stories originating from these busy streets.
Yet much to my surprise, a friend and I encountered a fair dose of culinary graciousness at the 18-year-old Trattoria La Strada, a place that locals might initially omit from their radar if seeking a quiet Italian meal.
Anchored in the thick of Fifth Avenue’s hubbub on a corner lot, the restaurant is fronted by a large patio, where diners and pedestrians become one. Sit along the railing and blink twice, and the notion of losing a meatball to a meal-deprived passerby seems feasible.
The restaurant’s interior, however, strikes an odd balance of coziness and spaciousness. Guests are afforded ample wiggle room, with many tables arranged alongside thick picture windows. The atmosphere is decidedly quieter, a soundproof escape from the outside clamor, but with stimulating street views. An open kitchen occupies the back wall, which at one end leads into a handsome, dimly lit bar lounge.
Admittedly, we arrived expecting an Italian restaurant as Gaslamp-homogenous as the last. Our expectations dwindled further when learning that La Strada is currently operating on autopilot. Since recently losing its executive chef to nearby Operacaffe, the kitchen is temporarily in the hands of line cooks and sous chefs.
But in between occasional turbulence, we encountered several dishes that made for a relatively pleasurable flight to central Italy. Thin sheets of roasted eggplant rolled around goat and ricotta cheeses, for instance, were light and delicately constructed. Sundried tomatoes pureed into the cheese mixture added tanginess while tingeing the swirls with an appealing pinkish hue. And the sweet red sauce covering the rollini was judiciously garlicky, unlike overloaded sauces meant to impress people who don’t know squat about garlic’s subtle role in Italian cooking.
Another appetizer, gamberoni in guazzetto, reads like shrimp scampi on paper except for the spicy red sauce covering the crustaceans. Priced at $15.95, it’s a rather expensive starter, but you get four large shrimp retaining their fresh ocean sweetness that are finished (in the kitchen) with brandy flambé. As for the puck of soggy bread in the center, it cried for a replacement of polenta or risotto.
In ordering caprese, we chose the version using fresh water-buffalo mozzarella from the nightly prix-fixé menu instead of the caprese using cow’s milk mozzarella available on the regular salad menu. The difference between the two curds is remarkable. Buffalo mozzarella enlivens the taste buds with tart milk enzymes the second it enters your mouth, adding verve and creaminess to so-so tomatoes, as they were on our plate. The cheese was served as a large ball, in a bowl of milky water, along with a pile of garden-fresh arugula that spiced up the whole shebang.
Rounding out our first course was an attractive tower of eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes layered with warm mozzarella. So subtle, we concluded the dish needed a leading flavor – a smoky cheese, feisty herbs, balsamic or a thicker encirclement of pesto.
A few cuts of pasta are made in-house, prompting us to choose fettuccine tossed in lightweight tomato sauce, basil, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil. It’s a simple and appealing dish when eaten onsite, though tastes much better when the soft strands of pasta are reheated after sleeping overnight in a doggy bag.
We readily concurred that La Strada’s handmade gnocci are the best we’ve eaten in a very long time – soft without being mushy; buoyant, yet with the right amount of density. Their accurateness was greatly complimented by creamy tomato sauce spiked with chili pepper and super-earthy porcini mushrooms surfacing every few bites.
Florentine-style pork loin roasted in rosemary and garlic had everything going for it in terms of flavor, but the meat was overcooked by a few critical minutes. I actually didn’t mind, but sticklers for medium-cooked pork would have probably taken comfort only in the robust jus, perfectly wilted spinach and nouvelles potatoes flaunting crisp, herby skins.
Disappointing by anyone’s standards was the cannoli, a classic Italian dessert that relies on fresh, airy pastry tubes for containing sweet, creamy ricotta cheese (speckled here with chocolate chips). The filling was on target; the pastry shell wasn’t. The oil in it, we suspected, had turned rancid, resulting in a dusty taste that didn’t allow us to proceed. So we turned instead to homemade Italian cheesecake and consumed it with gusto.
Chef resumes are pouring into La Strada, which means that some patching up in the kitchen will ensue once a skilled toque is hired. But even now, for a chefless Italian restaurant located smack in the middle of San Diego’s restaurant jungle, visitors will likely find a few more hits than misses.