The new year begins comfortably with a taste of decades gone by.
La Strada of Merrick is a traditional, dependable, friendly spot that specializes in Italian-American favorites. It’s a local mainstay, right from the name. This clearly isn’t La Strada of Reno, and definitely not of Fellini.
But the dining room does give you the look of a movie set suggesting a long-lived trattoria, with areas of exposed brick, a gilded patina, and reproductions of colorful, classic Italian food posters, including Leonetto Cappiello’s Pates Baroni and Achille Luciano Mauzan’s Maccheroni Pianigiani. There’s also a wood-fired brick oven.
And it’s from that oven that you’ll enjoy some flavorful pizzas, best shared by a group. The Vesuvio is aptly explosive, with cherry peppers detonated amid the broccoli di rape, sausage, fresh mozzarella, and tomato sauce. The Margherita: polite and purist. And the four-cheese pie changes the usual cast, bringing together ricotta, fontina, provolone and blue cheese.
You can contentedly continue the via formaggio with a very good version of mozzarella in carrozza, the Italianate spin on a grilled cheese sandwich, battered and fried, served with some marinara sauce; and creamy burrata, atop mesclun, with roasted red peppers, green olives, basil and tomatoes.
Fried calamari arrives crisp and tender. Baked clams are well-seasoned. Eggplant rollatine beats the last dozen versions you’ve tasted. But you can safely skip the outlier of coconut shrimp in favor of the straightforward shrimp cocktail. The stuffed artichoke is on the dry side.
Pastas reliably give you a little tour of several Italian regions. Go Roman with the rich, slightly smoky spaghetti alla carbonara. Veer Neapolitan with the salty, savory spaghetti alla puttanesca with olives and capers. Try the satisfying rendition of rigatoni Bolognese. And cross borders with either the snappy fusilli tossed with broccoli di rape, sausage and olive oil; or the husky baked lasagna.
Eggplant Parmigiana, elemental and fine, rivals the rollatine. Chicken Parmigiana materializes ample and to the point. Prosciutto, sliced eggplant and fresh mozzarella define the hearty chicken Sorrentino, in a gravy that has shades of brown and red. Chicken Marsala tends toward the oversweet. You’ll prefer the tang of chicken piccata. Shrimp scampi-style also has a gently lemony accent. To take a different route, pick the combo of calamari, clams and mussels fra diavolo.
Beef braciola, which you’d expect to be a cornerstone here, needs more seasoning and doesn’t benefit from either mozzarella or spinach. Beefeaters should consider the “gladiator” rib-eye steak, broiled and juicy, with onions, mushrooms and garlic-mashed potatoes.
Desserts are modest, displayed on a tray, starring acceptable cheesecake. But you’ll be thinking about tortoni and spumoni.