By Vickie Lewis
When you’re in the mood for a fine dining experience without traveling far from home, La Strada Italian Restaurant in San Pablo is a superb choice for West County residents. Conveniently located at the corner of Church Lane and San Pablo Avenue, near San Pablo City Hall, La Strada offers an extensive variety of Italian dishes presented in the traditional multi-course Italian style, served in a casual, yet elegant, atmosphere. Owner, Martino Gonzalez, and his staff are consummate hosts, and will welcome you warmly and provide excellent service that will make you want to return again and again.
My guest and I visited La Strada on a Friday evening around 7:00 PM. Although both of us had eaten there before, neither of us could remember the last time we’d visited nor what we’d previously ordered. After snagging a coveted parking place in the front parking lot, we entered the restaurant which was humming with the voices of the many diners within, and servers bustling around to tend their needs. We were greeted by a very gracious hostess who invited us to have a seat near the entry until a table became available. As we waited, we noticed several esthetic changes had been made to the restaurant interior since the last time either of us had visited; such as the gazebo-like entry-way adorned with foliage leading into the dining area. We also noticed the pleasant, comfortable ambience of the dining room where guests were obviously enjoying themselves. Although every table was full and there were several rather large parties, the atmosphere was not at all chaotic. Within less than ten minutes, we were greeted warmly by owner, Martino, who welcomed us, showed us to our table and made us feel right at home.
The dining tables are adorned with red and white linen tablecloths and napkins, and the servers are uniformly dressed in black slacks and white shirts. The dining room is bi-level, and each room has a generous amount of table seating, and both are spacious enough to accommodate large groups of guests. A large sign that says “Cucina” identifies the kitchen area, and there are beautiful chandeliers and ambient lighting throughout. A full cozy bar is nestled near the back of the upper dining room. The interior décor features lovely archways and pillars, reminiscent of Italian architecture, and stylish arched windows adorned with wooden shutters. Beautiful paintings and several large hand-painted murals of the Tuscan countryside decorate the restaurant walls. The traditional look and feel of this Italian ristorante is surpassed only by its authentic Italian culinary offerings.
La Strada’s menu is divided into multiple course selections—Antipasti & Pizza, Insalate & Zuppa, Prima Piatti, and Secondi Piatti (Translation: Appetizers and Pizza; Salad & Soup, First Course, and Second Course.) While soup and salad is not included with first or second course selections, either may be added for only a $2.00 upcharge. As we looked over the many choices on the menu, our waiter, Albano, introduced himself and took our drink orders. Although La Strada has a robust wine menu, my guest and I were more intrigued by the featured cocktails. I ordered an Italian Margarita, which was made with Amaretto; and my guest ordered an Island Margarita, was made with tropical juices. Both drinks were nice variations of traditional margaritas; however, I preferred the milder taste of the Italian drink (with the sugared rim), over the tropical drink, which had a stronger alcohol flavor.
From over a dozen traditional Italian appetizers, including such favorites as Bruschetta, Carpaccio, Calamari Fritti, and Mozzarella Caprese, we decided to order the Crostini–toasted breads topped with pesto, prosciutto, and mozzarella cheese. We both enjoyed the crunchiness of the toasted breads, and the delicious cheesy pesto flavor. We each ate two Crostini, and also indulged in the fresh bread and olive oil dipping sauce served with all meals. We were tempted to try another appetizer, but refrained to ensure we saved room for our dinner entrees.
We skipped the “first course” menu items, although there were many wonderful choices available—ravioli, fettuccine, lasagna, risotto, cannelloni, linguini, and gnocchi—each described as being prepared with homemade sauces, fresh vegetables, and/or various types of meat or seafood. The menu includes nearly two dozen “Prima Piatti” selections to please even the most discerning palates! But we opted for entrees from the “Secondi Piatti” menu, which also boasts such a wide array of wonderful selections, it was difficult to choose just one entree! Some of the selections we considered included the Salmone, served with Lemon Dill or Picatta sauce; Bistecca alla Fiorentina, grilled angus rib-eye steak with peppercorn or herb butter; and Gamberi alla Bordolese, prawns with fresh tomatoes, white wine and garlic. Veal and lamb entrees are also available, as well as eggplant, and even a good ole’ La Strada Cheeseburger for the staunch traditionalists! I selected the Braciola di Maiale, a French-cut pork chop, stuffed with prosciutto and gorgonzola cheese, cooked in a cherry wine reduction sauce. I requested to substitute the mashed potatoes for creamy polenta (since you can’t often order polenta in this area!), and was pleased to learn that the entree also included sautéed spinach. I also ordered a cup of La Strada’s home made minestrone soup. My guest ordered a side salad and opted for one of the evening’s special entrees, Red Snapper, topped with fresh tomatoes and capers, and served with mashed potatoes and vegetables.
The salad was a typical mixed green salad with shredded carrots and tomato. The minestrone soup was excellent, filled with large chunks of vegetables, including cabbage, celery, and potato, and it had a somewhat spicy flavor—very enjoyable! When our meals arrived, we were pleased with the overall presentation and portions. Albano garnished our entrees with fresh black pepper and fresh mozzarella cheese, and then left us to enjoy our meals. My guest’s meal included four or five generous pieces of tender and delicious red snapper, cooked and seasoned to perfection. My stuffed pork chop was thick, and the stuffing in the center was delicious, (though perhaps a bit sparse!) The cherry wine reduction sauce gave the pork chop a slightly sweet flavor and added to the moistness of the meat. The creamy polenta was divine, and I also enjoyed the very tender mound of sautéed spinach. My guest took home a small portion of her meal, but I confess that I happily cleaned my plate!
As business slowed toward the end of the evening, Martino joined us to share a bit of history about La Strada, which celebrated its twenty-year anniversary in July 2016. As I indulged in the best Tiramisu I’ve eaten since visiting Italy, and my guest enjoyed a decadent piece of Chocolate Fondant Cake, Martino told us the story of how he and his partner started the restaurant and built this wonderful local business over the past two decades.
As a young man, Martino worked for many years as a busboy and waiter at La Felce, formerly a famous North Beach restaurant that served five course Italian meals. While there, he took the initiative to learn as much as he could about the business, and was embraced as family by his employers who encouraged him and gave him the opportunities to learn. He later pursued accounting and tax preparation, and landed a good job working for UC Berkeley in 1993. At that time, Martino lived in Richmond, and for over a year, drove past the empty storefront that now houses La Strada. The location had previously been a coffee shop, and later VP’s Lounge, both of which were out of business. One day, he and his brother-in-law, Adrien Munoz, inquired about leasing the location, and all the pieces fell into place! They leased the building in April 1996, and after a lot of hard work, opened La Strada (which means “The Road”) just three months later on July 24th. The rest, as they say, is history! Leveraging his learnings from working at La Felce, and with support and encouragement from his former employers, Martino and Adrien launched a very successful Italian restaurant that has become a pillar in West County. Six years later, the owners opened a second La Strada location in Napa, which recently celebrated its fourteenth anniversary. Adrien primarily runs the business in Napa, and Martino is primarily responsible for the San Pablo location.
La Strada in San Pablo is fortunate to have a number of long-term employees who know their customers, and make dining here very “homey.” In addition to Martino, who can converse with customers in fluent Italian, other long term employees include general manager, Peter Lampert; our server, Albano; Terry and Mark, who serve and bartend. Most importantly, two of the cooks have worked at La Strada for seventeen years, helping to provide a consistent culinary experience to their customers. Not only is La Strada a wonderful place to dine, but the owners are extremely active in charitable community events. Martino shared that he enjoys helping and supporting local organizations, and frequently donates gift certificates to organizations such as the Soroptimists, Rotarians, Boys and Girls Club, local schools, and too many others to list here! Martino currently lives in Hercules with his wife, Christina, and his two daughters, Isabella (14) and Elizabeth (12).
For me, La Strada conjures fond memories of a number of special celebrations I’ve enjoyed there over the years—Christmas parties, my daughter’s graduation party, and my grandmother’s 94th birthday celebration. Each and every time, we enjoyed great food and service, and a welcoming, unrushed atmosphere which made each event that much more enjoyable. In addition to the spacious dining areas, La Strada also has a downstairs banquet room that holds 85 to 100 guests, and is booked frequently for parties, weddings, business meetings, and more. You’ll also want to check out La Strada’s special events for holidays and other occasions, such as Valentine’s Day, St. Patty’s Day and Mother’s Day.
So, the next time you’re looking for a nice restaurant to enjoy an excellent Italian lunch or dinner with friends or family, or if you are celebrating a special occasion, check out La Strada in San Pablo. I’m confident you’ll enjoy not only your meals, but also the atmosphere, and the welcoming and friendly staff who are eager to serve you. And if you see Martino, congratulate and thank him for bringing to West County a wonderful and authentic Italian restaurant that we can enjoy close to home. Buon Appetito!