Review: La Strada Italia
Is it possible that somewhere in Jacksonville there is a strip mall with not one, but three great local restaurants? We visited La Strada Italia to find out.
First, we found the transcendent Mr. Taco, then came the Hunt Club surprise. Two great places in one tiny, dumpy strip mall. If we ignored a bar and a chain pizza place, there was one local restaurant left in the complex – La Strada Italia. Last Wednesday, we checked it out. When we were seated just after 6 p.m., we were the only ones in the place. We ordered garlic knots, two pizzas and zeppole. Our server was unsure how many zeppole came in an order. I told her to bring an appropriate amount for The Man, myself and three of our kids. That was 6:15.
Within 10 minutes, we had our garlic knots and drinks.
These were a hit with everyone. The bread was tender and there was a lot of garlic flavor. The sauce seemed fresh and had a lot of good tomato flavor. The Man and I agreed that the cheese was generally tasteless and didn’t add much, but overall the dish was a great starter.
As we waited for our pizzas, we noticed some strange things. Three more tables of two had joined us in the dining room. This made the restaurant less than a third full. Yet, the only server in the place was taking orders, bringing drinks, serving apps, cooking and plating. From what we could see, there were at least three cooks in the back, but there is a pizza oven at the counter area, which the server was frenetically checking. As she whirled like a dervish between her duties, we saw the cooks saunter slowly out one by one to collect bottled beers from the cooler in the dining room.
After about 20 minutes, our pizzas came out. This is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to wait for an entree for five people, in my opinion. Our server placed the food on the table on metal stands, which I love in a pizza place. However, this is where the weirdness starts. As I said, other than myself, we had The Man and three children, aged 13, 5 and 4. She did not remove the three appetizer plates OR the appetizer serving plate on the table. She simply brought two large plates and put them in the middle of the table. I figured maybe she thought we’d use the little plates for the kids and we’d use the big ones. She told us that the kitchen had made a mistake. We had ordered extra large pizzas, but they had made larges. We’re big fans of leftover pizza, what can I say? Of course, stuff happens. No big deal. Our drinks were refilled and we dug into our pies.
Large Cheese Pizza
The cheese pizza is my “canary in a coal mine” in an Italian restaurant. It’s a simple, indicative dish which displays the quality of the sauce, cheese and bread products in any establishment. This was good pizza. The sauce is fresh and full of tomato flavor, the crust is crispy and crackly with a nice herb component and a salty, nicely browned exterior. There’s a good amount of cheese and just the right amount of sauce. This is a pie made with love.
Cheese Pizza slice
We also ordered my personal favorite, the Pizza Margherita.
Large Pizza Margherita
In my opinion, Pizza Margherita is pizza in its truest form – crust – sauce – cheese – basil – tomato. That’s it. That’s all you need. It’s pizza boiled down to the basic components. However, those components have to be just right because there’s nothing to cover them up. It’s easy to make something covered in cheese taste good, but when it’s stripped of the usual supreme trappings, there’s a lot of room for error.
Pizza Margherita Slice
Just as with the basic cheese, the crust, sauce and cheese were spot-on. This is really good pizza, but I think the tomatoes used could have been a little riper. As you can see from the photo, they were a bit pale, soft and flavorless. Unfortunately, the quality of the tomatoes also caused puddles of gloppy water to form on the pizza. However, I’d come back for this pizza again because I think when tomatoes are in season this will improve greatly.
After two surprisingly tasty pizzas, we were ready for dessert. I’m a huge fan of fried dough in all its forms, so of course I ordered zeppole. If you haven’t had them, they are very much like beignets – pillowy fried bits of dough sometimes filled with fruit or cream, but normally served simply dusted in powdered sugar. As I mentioned, I had ordered these at the beginning of the meal. We had spent a good half hour eating our pizza and chatting, so I was surprised when she came back to be sure how many we wanted to order.
As we waited, our server passed by dozens of times without taking the plates, refilling the drinks or pulling the remaining pizza to be boxed. Half an hour passed. Finally, one of the cooks passed through and looked like he remembered we hadn’t gotten our order yet. A few minutes later, our server came to tell me that our zeppole would be free. As The Man came back from the bathroom, he was stopped by the server about the zeppole and was told to “enjoy the prices while they last because we can’t afford to change the menu.” Another fifteen to twenty minutes later, the order came – two large plates of zeppole.
This was a very large order of zeppole. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good. The dough was tough and heavy, they were greasy and (as you can clearly see in the photo taken just seconds after delivery) the little dusting of powdered sugar quickly melted into the grease. While the portion is more than generous at $3 a plate, they were awful.
I also have to mention at this point that the pizzas, dirty dishes and empty glasses were still sitting on the table. We were not brought fresh plates for the zeppole. The server came by and finally asked me if I’d like more to drink just as we were ready for the check. I asked for boxes for the pizza and the check instead. She brought the boxes and left the two zeppole dishes, five empty cups, five dishes, appetizer serving dish and two pizza stands behind. She actually moved one of the dirty plates to put down the check. Instead of clearing our table, cooking, plating, answering the phone or returning to the silverware she had been wrapping in napkins at the table next to us, she rushed back to the pizza oven to peek in every few seconds and pace nervously.
To most folks this would appear to just be bad service. However, our server was friendly, courteous and helpful when we had questions. The problem here is management and flow. There is zero consistency in almost every aspect we saw of La Strada. Great food is marred by frenetic, ineffective service. A spotless womens bathroom is ruined by a filthy mens room used to store someone’s chin-up bar. A beautifully tiled, clean dining room is quickly sunk by a glimpse into the chaotic, messy kitchen that looks like a storage unit with a torn up floor.
I think La Strada’s heart is in the right place. The pizza is magnificent, but it’s wasted with a terrible experience. When we finally piled back in the car, it was 8:30 p.m. All told, we spent two hours to get garlic knots, two very simple pizzas and an order of zeppole. Because of the incorrect order and the wait, we were given a discount on one of our pizzas and one of the orders of zeppole was free, which was very nice of them. I would go back to try out the pasta offerings, though I have to say that in my experience a menu that large in a place that small may be the root of many of their issues.
Due to the staff comments about the cooks being new, the server possibly being new (not to mention the crack about the menus), I was wondering if the place had changed hands or management. I emailed the question and was told that the restaurant changed owners a year ago.
I’m hoping that they get themselves straightened out soon because this is some of the best pizza in Jax. It would be a waste to see it go because of these issues. I would think this was just a bad night, but Urbanspoon and Yelp both mention slow service going all the way back to spring of last year.
In conclusion, yes, there is a magic strip mall on Bowden Road with three awesome places to eat. Mr. Taco, Hunt Club and La Strada are all worth your time. The question is just how much of it you have to spend.
La Strada Italia is located at 6426 Bowden Road. The phone number and website remain an ever-changing mystery, but you can try 524-8219 and www.lastradaitalia.com if you’re feeling sporting. I’m told the website might be up soon. A more reliable alternative is the La Strada Italia Facebook page.
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all images copyright © 2011 by jodi a. kasten • all rights reserved