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Trattoria La Strada -- the gods must love it

Paraphrasing the old quip, God must love dining at Italian restaurants. He's made so many of them. It seems that every other quality eatery serves dishes based on that country's cuisine.

Italian food is, indeed, one of America's favorites. It isn't just based on price or profits. Granted, pasta is inexpensive and profitable. But some of the meat and veal dishes are quite expensive to produce (and buy), especially when loaded with cheese and other delicacies. The popularity of Italian food is based more on flavors, textures and heartiness.

The Gaslamp is fortunate to house a number of very fine Italian restaurants. De Medici features excellent seafood creations. Acqua Al 2 prepares recipes created by a Florence master. Trattoria La Strada, located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and G Street, features the best of Tuscany.

If longevity is the mark of a fine restaurant, Trattoria La Strada is certainly a winner. Antonio and Carlo Giovannini opened its doors in 1991, one of the first fine restaurants in the area. Cumulatively, they have over 50 years of experience running exclusive dining rooms. Many of the recipes have been created or modified by Carlo.

The restaurant is at the corner of the street. Its windows wind around both sides of the intersection, offering guests a clear view of passers-by. When conventions are in town at the nearby Convention Center, diners can see and wave at their friends. Generally, the kaleidoscope of peoples' shapes and dress is a fascinating addition to the pleasures of a fine meal. The restaurant also has a large outdoor patio for dining under the sky.

The tables are well spaced and covered with tablecloths and fine utensils.

It is the quality of the food that had customers returning all these years, its freshness and flavor. The menu, whether for lunch or dinner, is extensive and varied, sure to please every desire. And many dishes are unique.

Take the bread, for example. Many Italian restaurants serve bread made out of pizza dough, which is light and often oily. Not so here. The bread here was hearty, large flat rolls that are crusty on the outside, thick on the inside and very tasty. Bruschetta, by contrast, is a lighter bread, grilled and topped with chopped tomato and basil. It can be ordered with thin slices of prosciutto for more delicious substance.

Among the antipasti (appetizers) Gamberoni In Guazzetto, large shrimp sauced with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper and parsley and flambeed with brandy in a spicy red sauce, is a wonderful introduction to a memorable meal. Calamaretti Friti, fried fresh calamari with a garlic aioli and spicy marinara sauce, is another good seafood beginning.

Carpaci are also great appetizers. One of my favorites is the Salmone Affumicato Con Pane Toscano, thinly sliced smoked salmon marinated in olive oil and lemon, topped with mixed baby greens and capers, served with grilled Tuscan bread. It sounds like "lox" but it is way better.

The pastas at Trattoria La Strada -- spaghetti, linguini, ravioli and the others -- are homemade and authentic. I enjoy pasta that is thick, hearty and al dente. My linguini was absolutely perfect.

Pastas now include vegetarian, seafood and meaty dishes. On the "veggie" side, Ravioli Al Gorgonzola -- homemade ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and spinach in a creamy Italian gorgonzola cheese sauce -- is a taste sensation. Spaghetti Alla Bolognese, spaghetti pasta served with a Bolognese style meat ragout, is a classic winner that kids seem to like a lot.

The menu lists a variety of chicken, seafood, veal and meat dishes. The ossobuco (lamb shank), with lots of marrow, had tremendous flavor. The ribeye was sizzling, tender and beautifully marbled. Among seafood dishes, Chilean Sea Bass al Cartoccio with manila clams, mussels, asparagus and cherry tomatoes, is an excellent choice. On my last visit, I greatly enjoyed Pollo Toscano, a large chicken breast stuffed with asparagus, mozzarella and prosciutto. The components created an interplay of delicate and delicious flavors.

Be sure to leave room for dessert. The Torta di cioccolato, a decadent flourless chocolate cake layered with rich Belgium dark chocolate, has recently won an award as "best dessert" in the Gaslamp.

Keep Trattoria La Strada in mind for Father's Day. Dad will love it. Prices are moderate to high, but dad is worth it.

Trattoria La Strada is located at 702 Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp. Call 619-239-3400 for reservations and information.

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