Much of the charm of East Fourth Street comes from its vast differences. Diners can hop from a green restaurant to a martini chic bowling alley, a dinner and comedy joint to a Food Network chef’s signature spot.
And nestled in the mix is La Strada World Café, adding Mediterranean luster to the once tawdry pedestrian street. Terry Tarantino, owner of La Dolce Vita in Little Italy, brought the restaurant to life a year ago with solid inspiration from Italian director Federico Fellini.
Evidence of the latter is obvious upon entering La Strada, named for the movie directed by Fellini. The main floor of the restaurant is bathed in darkness — an effect that creates two scenes: the ambiance of dining on an Italian piazza after sunset and a drive-in movie theater with classic black and white movies La Strada, La Dolce Vita and Casablanca constantly playing on the southern wall. A unique move, as the only other restaurants I have seen showing movies were in Aspen, Colo.
Tarantino wanted the ceiling, which has no lighting, and the rest of the first floor dining room to be dark, as though you are sitting outside. He has even toyed with the idea of putting little phosphorous stars, including some that would resemble real constellations, onto the ceiling.
Upstairs provides a view of the entire “neighborhood.” The sight lines run from the front of the house to a bird’s-eye view of the kitchen in the rear of the room. The lighting is brighter upstairs, but it does not interfere with the movie.
Tarantino has no trouble setting a Mediterranean scene that is well-supported by La Strada’s menu, which succeeds as a tour of the Eastern Mediterranean. This was evident by several reactions we overheard during our visit.
When one guest saw her kabob being carried to the table, she exclaimed, “This is just how they do it in Istanbul.” Her dona kabob ($18), well-seasoned ground lamb that is squeezed onto skewers and grilled, was very tender. The dish, she said, made her feel as though she had returned to the Bosphorus.
For appetizers, we tried a delicious fungi griglia ($10), which consists of a large portobello mushroom with a filling of pancetta, roasted red peppers and smoked scamorza cheese. A drizzle of fine balsamic vinegar paired marvelously with the salty pancetta.
The calamari valenciana ($9) was a good change from the standard calamari. The tubes of squid were coated with crisp rice flour and fried to a uniform crispness, and the sauce was a zesty blend of hot peppers, zucchini and white wine.
The pasta frittata ($9), a pocket filled with garlic-infused spinach and ricotta, was crispy with an interior that oozed from its fried bed of capellini. This was good but not quite up to the other appetizers we sampled. The sauce simply did not have the same depth of flavor as most of the other dishes.
Served in a deep bowl, the ripieno pollo ($20) was a mystery of tremendous flavors with a mix of dried tomatoes, plentiful bacon, caramelized onions and sweet chicken. The only change I would make to this dish is the deep bowl it came in — perhaps something a little shallower would offer a more enjoyable way to experience the mix of flavors.
In several ways, La Strada reminded me of a cave in Mexico that I dined at frequently. That is not a knock on the place — the waiters in the Mexican cave wore tuxedos. And although the staff at La Strada doesn’t wear tuxedos (the restaurant has a casual atmosphere in which diners are comfortable in suits and Cavaliers T-shirts alike), the staff here works hard to make guests happy.
When we were there, our waiter added an enjoyable touch while we were deciding what to order by bringing each person at our table a slice of vagabondo pizza. It was topped with spinach, fresh tomato, red onion, Kalamata olives, feta and mozzarella.
All of these toppings may sound like overkill, but they were far from it. The flavors married perfectly, the base was crispy, the vegetables were not overdone, and each bite seemed to have the flavor of every ingredient.
I became so enamored with the vagabondo pizza ($11) that it was the first thing I ordered on my second visit.
My dining companion adored the scampi risotto ($22). The large scampi were perfectly cooked and had lots of flavor, just like the sea itself, commented one diner. But the risotto was a tad undercooked, and the saffron broth was short on the exotic spice’s flavor.
A nice, thick slab of salmon ($25) was on the menu as the fish of the day but could have benefited from a few minutes less on the grill.
The big eater in our group chose the beef tenderloin kabob ($19) — a great choice for anyone with a hearty appetite. The beef, served atop farro (the original wheat from which all other grains are derived, which was nearly extinct but has made somewhat of a comeback) and a portobello mushroom cap, was extremely tender. The flavor was exceptional for a filet, which is known for its tenderness but certainly not its flavor.
There is a variety of desserts to cap off your meal, but I recommend ending like we did, with a cannoli. They’re as good as they get this side of Little Italy.
La Strada, 2050 E. Fourth St., Cleveland, (216) 861-3663; Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m., Mon-Thu 4:30 p.m. - 10 p.m., Fri & Sat 4:30 p.m. - 11 p.m.