Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Friends and food with an Italian accent

house is the word that comes to mind when I pass LaStrada out here in my neck of the woods. It’s a little Italian restaurant that has been around for decades, doing business out of a pieced-together shack that rests uncomfortably close to a major thoroughfare in the Land of Cotton.

It really has no shape or form and I have no idea what it housed before it became a little ristorante that has the feel of a neighborhood trattoria. Unpretentious sums up its interior – a few dozen tables and booths on a rickety wooden floor, small bar in one corner, a few photos and tchotchkes sprinkled about to provide a bit of, um, atmosphere.

Balancing out the look, however, is the food, iconic Italian dishes that are hearty and dee-licious – ravioli, lasagna, linguini and spaghetti. There’s also a creative chef back in the tiny kitchen, kicking out daily specials that ooze with Italian flavor and charm.

The Shrimp Sambuca, for instance, will have you humming “That’s Amore”. It’s a lavish and sophisticated dish featuring sautéed jumbo shrimp in garlic, flavored with onion, basil, and kalamata olives, blended together with a tomato sambuca sauce and served over a herbed pappardelli pasta and feta cheese.

I’m thinking it was the aroma of all these tasty delights that smacked me in the kisser when the lovely Miss Wendy and I met up with weekend pals, Susan and John, at LaStrada a few nights ago. Before we could say ciao and offer up a few air kisses all around, there was a basket of garlic bread and a small bowl of black olive tapenade to whet our appetites.

The menu is expansive, but manageable; and being in a no frills sort of mood, and only moderately starving, I had little difficulty sorting through the salads and pasta, meat and fish dishes before pulling together a euphonic blend of Italian delights.

Ignoring the hellish temperatures outside, I started with one of the evening’s specials – chicken vegetable soup, a hearty blend of fresh veggies and hunks of chicken, swimming in a rich tomato-based broth. For my entrée, I went with the manicotti – large tubular pasta shells stuffed with ricotta cheese and herbs topped with marinara sauce and melted mozzarella cheese.

I was so lost in all this Italian goodness – a perfect blend of sweet, hearty sauce and gooey cheeses and pasta – that I have no recollection what my partner in life and friends were feasting on nearby. I do recall the clinking of dinnerware and some vague sounds of contentment around me.

So, what about desert? Well, I’m glad you asked. There were no bad choices, just a difficult decision – cheesecake and gelato and tiramisu, oh my! What about Cioccolato al Forno, a warm flourless chocolate cake served with a chocolate sauce topping? Why, yes, let us all eat cake

It was rich in a light and airy sort of way, amusingly garnished with two delicate swirls of cream, sensually caressed with a layer of silky chocolate sauce. And it was good.

Now it’s gone and so is the weekend, our Italian feast just another warm memory of good times, with good friends. Bella notte, I think, is the appropriate phrase – a beautiful Italian night, at least for a few hours, before stepping back out into the heat and humidity of the Land of Cotton.

LOOKS ITALIAN: Take a couple of large tubular pasta shells (photo above), stuff liberally with ricotta cheese and herbs, then top with marinara sauce and melted mozzarella cheese and, bingo, you’ve got manicotti!

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