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A Stroll Through La Strada

[whitespace] La Strada
Christopher Gardner

More Than Eats the Eye: There's artistry on the walls and in chef Aldo Maresca's kitchen at La Strada.

Unpretentious and thoroughly nontrendy, La Strada does a relaxed, nonthreatening version of fine Italian cuisine

By Christina Waters

A FEW CANDLES would go very nicely with the rollicking Italian tunes and atmospheric artwork that infuse La Strada with a warm glow, my dinner date Phyllis and I agreed last week. The huge wall mural of happy Renaissance diners invites patrons to linger a while and get into a similar mood. Surveying the short wine list--with the help of our excellent wait person--we chose a bottle of Chianti Classico Riserva "Il Grigio" from San Felice ($32) to go with our meals. Filled with spice and a hint of leather, the sturdy wine was just the thing to toast La Strada's incredibly out-of-the-ordinary house bread, an unusual light whole wheat whose crust crunched with a light dusting of cracked wheat. "Wow, this is great," said Phyllis, dredging one of the warm slices in roasted-garlic-infused olive oil. And it was. Very. What a nice change from the ubiquitous francese breads that show up as regularly as Sunday mass on most Italian menus.

After working our way through a dangerous amount of the delicious bread--helped along by sips of Chianti--we started on the Insalata La Strada ($6.50) and an unusual prawn appetizer with goat cheese and fresh mint ($8). The mint sprinkled over the huge prawns and lightly tangy goat cheese gave the entire dish a Middle Eastern aspect, as though this dish might have come to southern Italy during Moorish occupation. At any rate, we absolutely loved these unusual ingredients, which went very well with the bountiful green salads. Olives and ripe tomato slices--a miracle this time of year--spiced up the copious greens, and the olive oil drizzled all over the prawns and goat cheese added a sense of richness and sensuality to our appetizer course.

We kept coming back to the bread--so wonderful. Essentially, La Strada specializes in good home cooking, we thought, surveying entrees of Penne Pazza ($10.50) and roast pork loin ($16.50). Phyllis, who adores spicy food, found much to like in her penne dish, which arrived tossed with an anchovy-intensive red sauce, spiked with red chile flakes, capers and mixed green and black olives. Like a puttanesca, the sauce practically sang Verdi with each bite, and the pasta itself had been cooked to exactly the point of al dente perfection.

Meanwhile, over at my very generously portioned plate, something simpler in the way of meat and potatoes was taking place. Not one, not two, but three large slices of pork loin--a bit on the chewy side--lay next to a colorful bevy of mixed squashes. Large, extremely hot, cottage-fried potatoes rounded out the very full plate. It was such an extravagant portion that we had most of it wrapped to go home with us.

After all, Italian desserts are required eating.

From a tempting list of desserts that included tiramisu, we selected a shared order of tartufo ($6.50), an elaborate creation of interlocking ice creams covered with praline and chocolate. And what we got was bizarre and beautiful. On a plate decorated with pretty designs traced with raspberry and pastry cream--and accentuated with alternating blueberries and raspberries--sat a chocolate orb the size of a tennis ball, sprigged with fresh mint. Stabbing delicately at this prize, we opened it up to reveal a heart of chocolate ice cream, and within that another heart of nut-studded zabaliogne ice cream. It was unbelievably good, satisfying all those dessert cravings for sweetness, tartness, coolness and creaminess. And chocolate.

The tartufo was the perfect dessert to share--perhaps only Anna Magnani on a good day could have finished it all by herself.

La Strada, like a good Fellini film, offers some classic ideas without trendy pretensions. It's a charming, low-key alternative that has found a neighborhood following.

La Strada
Cuisine: Classic Italian
Entrees: Inexpensive to moderate
Hours: Open 5-10pm nightly
Address: 210 E. Main St., Los Gatos
Phone: 408/395-5704

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From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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