A sign at the front door of La Strada in Merrick offers the first hint of the restaurant's underlying thoughtfulness. The note politely directs diners to the rear entrance (off the parking lot), for the purpose of keeping cold air out of the dining room. On entering, you are greeted at once by an affable hostess and the alluring scent of wood smoke emanating from the pizza oven, the province of owner Guy Saraniero.
What a warm and pleasant place to dine on a frigid night. The space, decorated to resemble a brick-walled outdoor courtyard, is furnished with upholstered wrought-iron chairs, the effect both whimsical and decorative. Despite the hard brick floor, the room doesn't reverberate with noise, thanks to sound-muffling material on the ceiling.

A detail Saraniero overlooked, though, was the breadbasket, which, on my two visits, contained a pedestrian Italian loaf, sliced and heated to dryness. Garlic knots, warm from the pizza oven, were better, if a bit on the doughy side.

But Saraniero's Margherita pie, made with high-quality fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce and basil, was a knockout, properly charred around the edges. An explanation on the menu informs people that charring on a well-done wood-oven pizza "cannot be controlled." To me, it adds to the pie's rustic appeal.

While I liked the simple, old-fashioned chicken soup (one version floated vegetables, another, cheese tortellini), I had mixed feelings about a hot antipasto combination platter. Baked clams and stuffed mushrooms were humdrum; lightly garlicked shrimp scampi, on the other hand, was cooked to the ideal degree of doneness. And eggplant rollatini - slices stuffed with prosciutto and ricotta - came off as both rich and light.

Chef Carlos Lema's roster of entrees doesn't aim for the novel or revolutionary. Instead, Lema focuses care on simple Italian-American classics. A case in point is the chicken scarpariello, big chunks of white meat (not usually a personal favorite) seared on the outside, juicy within, in a deeply flavorful balsamic rosemary sauce studded with sliced sausage. Similarly cut and cooked poultry pieces show up in the lusty chicken cacciatore, done with onions and peppers in a peppy tomato sauce. Chicken Francese - a dish more French than Italian - is sauteed in a light egg batter, glazed with a lemon, white wine and butter sauce that's at once citrusy and mellow.

Every pasta dish I sampled arrived al dente. Whole littleneck clams topped a bowl of linguine with white clam sauce, a dish tasting of olive oil, garlic and fresh, briny mollusks. Penne Bolognese featured quill-shaped pasta in a hearty meat sauce enriched with a bit of cream. Rigatoni alla vodka was bolstered by prosciutto, its creamy booze-spiked tomato sauce just coating (not drowning) the macaroni pieces. And lasagna, made with ridged noodles, translated into a rich, hefty square, layered with lots of ground meat, ricotta and fresh mozzarella.

Desserts were ceremoniously presented on a tray. While not made in the restaurant, they were surprisingly good. Tiramisu, airy and lush, was surpassed by a pistachio tartufo coated with white chocolate, a finale a friend selected. I never would have chosen the frozen bonbon, surmising it would be every bit as ordinary as it looked on the outside. Instead, it had the bright, clean taste of genuine Italian gelato, a flavor hard to come by on Long Island.

Just one more reason to return to this welcome and welcoming neighborhood spot.

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Reviewed by Joan Reminick, 2/19/08.