I was recently invited to a press dinner at Strada 18 in South Norwalk. The restaurant was eager to share with us their Italian-American Comfort Classics Dinner. With temperatures well below the freezing mark, all the snow, freezing rain and sleet, this is the type of food so many are craving right now.
A group of about 20 or so writers, editors and bloggers gathered together for this dinner that was prepared especially for us. We started out with the Fried Calamari with Three Sauces, aioli, lemon-lime-jalapeno-cilantro, and marinara. The calamari was tender, flavorful and incredibly crispy and the accompanying sauces complemented them perfectly. We also enjoyed the Arancini, a fried risotto ball stuffed with American farmstead Fontina and served with a tomato sauce. The Arancini was good – but I wouldn’t say it was outstanding or one of the best I’ve ever had. While we were enjoying our appetizers we were also enjoying several beer and wine pairings that included a Belgian Witbier - Vuuve, a Blonde Ale – Ama – from Brooklyn Brewery & Amacord, a Chocolate Ale – Chocarrubica – from Birrificio, and Founder’s Curmudgeon Old Ale (oak-aged). I enjoyed all them all but thought the chocolate was a bit overwhelming.
Next we moved on to the House-Made Burrata made with Sicilian unfiltered Frantoio, extra virgin olive oil, 10 year aged Balsamic vinegar, fresh basil, house roasted red peppers and walnuts. While this was not necessarily the softest or the creamiest burrata I’ve had, I really enjoyed it. I loved the presentation - in small individual sized bowls - the serving was generous, neither too large nor too small. The flavors of the vinegar, basil and red peppers complemented the cheese perfectly, and did not overwhelm as Balsamic vinegar often does. The addition of the walnuts added a nice texture. I would have loved a nice crusty piece of bread to eat with this. In fact, I could have made a meal of bread and this alone!
From the beer we moved over to wine and we were given a Rossese Punta Crena Vigneto Isasco from Ligurnia, Italy. This small family-owned boutique vineyard produces many varietals that are not mass produced. This wine, derived from coastal, red clay terrain with notes of red berries and flowers, was light with hints of mineral and complemented the burrata nicely.
From the light wine and cheese to the heavier foods and full bodied reds we ventured. This was the focus of our dining experience, a true Sunday supper on a bitter cold Thursday night. To our table arrived piping hot bowls of rigatoni, Sunday sauce, a house-made gluten-free tagliatelle, and a large platter of sausage, meatballs and spareribs. While I did not grow up in an Italian household, I have been in many Italian kitchens and what was presented to us reminded me of such. It all looked like comfort. It all smelled like comfort. The truth would be in the tasting. We filled our plates with the pastas, meats and the sauce and then took slow deliberate bites.
I bit into the rigatoni, cooked nicely, slightly soft, that I’d topped off with the Sunday sauce. As I was trying to focus on the flavors, I was also listening in on the great debate at my table; Is it sauce, or is it gravy? Whatever you want to call it, it was delicious with deep flavors that develop only after hours of simmering away. The sauce was hearty with tiny bits of tender meat that remained after the meat itself was removed. Next I tried the house-made sausage that was bursting with flavor, as was the meatball. The meatball however, was a bit too dense for my liking. I was expecting something much softer. The spare-rib, however, knocked it out of the park with the perfect mix of flavor and fall-off-the-bone tenderness that I wanted the meatball to have. When I go to press dinners I try to stick to one or two bites of any given item. I went to town with the spare-rib however, and if I had been in the privacy of my own home, I would have picked it up in my hands and gnawed at it in a very un-feminine manner. I was also very pleasantly surprised with the gluten free pasta. Made in house with quinoa flour, it tasted like an al dente pasta, and had none of the textures or consistencies that I had previously experienced with such pastas. For those with gluten or wheat intolerances, I highly recommend this.
Our dinner didn’t stop there. We then moved on to the Chicken Parmesan that was served with broccoli rabe and paired with two bolder Italian wines, a Chianti Classico, Podere Le Boncie, Le Trame, from Berardenga in the Tuscan region of Italy, and a Carignano del Sulcis Riserva, Cantina Casaletta, Aina, from Sardinia. Both were solid choices. It should be noted that Strada 18 has a very extensive wine list with anywhere from 275-400 wines at any given time.
I must admit I was quite disappointed with the Chicken Parmesan. Upon delivery it looked like a fried piece of chicken with some melted cheese on top. And that’s what it tasted like. It was tough, overcooked and, I was surprised that this came out of the same kitchen that created the Sunday sauce and the delightful spare-rib.
But let’s turn our attention to a sweeter spot, dessert! We sampled bits of Pignoli Honey Tart, Lemon Semolina Cake and Black Pepper & Walnut Biscotti, these unique treats that were accompanied by a sweet dessert wine, Malaga, Jorge Ordonez & Co., ‘Old Vines No. 3.’ We also sampled Mascarpone, Caramel and Chocolate gelato – all of which were exceptional, and finally, my favorite dessert, possibly my favorite item of the night, the Shot & a Beer, a playful twist on the traditional affogado. Instead of coffee, a shot of Drambuie is poured over the ‘Curmudgeon’ Old Ale Gelato. This dish was delightful and yet oddly refreshing after a big meal.
While there were a couple of misses, there were some clear winners, and I look forward to returning to try some of the items that regularly appear on their menu.
122 Washington Street
Norwalk, CT 06854