Although the myth of Marco Polo bringing pasta to Italy from his travels in China in the late 13th century long has been proven a fallacy, one of Richmond's newest Italian restaurants, Osteria La Giara, forges a link between Italy and China. Nuccio Giambanco, an immigrant from Sicily in the mid-1980s and longtime proprietor of Nuccio's Trattoria and Pizza on Richmond's South Side, cooks his pasta in a wok. (You can check out his video on YouTube for a demonstration.)
Just beyond Short Pump Mall and next to the new Hilton, Osteria La Giara occupies an unassuming spot in a recently built strip mall. It's difficult to create much of a mood in such a setting; the few posters and wall sconces do little to create atmosphere, and the piped-in Rat Pack music seems a bit too obvious. Luckily the food is better than average.
On a visit with my family on a weekday night, the restaurant is quiet, but for some reason service is at a crawl. I've heard that the original Nuccio's had a good pizza, so we start our evening with a New York style pizza. The thin, crispy crust delivers, and the sauce is good, but the sausage topping is sliced too thin, like pepperoni, and lacks much flavor. And I'm unimpressed with the plastic plates.
Our other appetizers are much better. A lobster ravioli special ($7.95) is comforting on a chilly evening. Three tender ravioli are stuffed with shredded lobster and topped with a creamy tomato sauce, something akin to a vodka sauce. Mozzarella fritta ($7) is a refreshing riff on an overdone item. Instead of the usual tasteless fried stick variety, Giambanco prepares breaded and fried triangles of cheese, stuffed with prosciutto (you can also choose smoked salmon) and sauced with lemony cream studded with capers. The sauce is so good that I reach for bread to soak up the extra. Unfortunately the bread is an afterthought, dry and without any crust to speak of. Years ago I would have expected it, but Richmond's bread landscape is greatly improved and these are the details that can elevate an experience.
Made-to-order pasta can be whipped up in a wok for $7, a good bargain by today's standards. Pastas come in six shapes (spaghetti, fettuccine, angel hair, rigatoni, linguini and penne), sauces in six flavors (alfredo, tomato, marinara, garlic and oil, creamy tomato, or meat sauce), a range of vegetables at no extra cost, or meats (bacon, sausage, meatballs, grilled chicken or beef) for an extra $2. We sample fettuccine and are impressed with the flavorful sauce and juicy homemade meatballs, and the pasta is well sauced from its trip around the wok.
A few of the chef's choices are also very good. Tortellaci Osteria ($14) are large tortellini stuffed with cheese and served with a decadently creamy alfredolike sauce with peas, mushrooms and bits of ham. Pollo rollatini ($16) is a rolled chicken breast stuffed with sausage and mushrooms before being breaded and fried. The rosemary port wine sauce is excellent and imbues the dish with hearty woodsy flavors. But the accompanying pasta with a lackluster marinara doesn't meet the same standards and goes uneaten.
A return visit starts with a great white pizza, crispy and garlicky. Nuccio has fitted his oven with thick bricks to help his pizzas attain their crispy crusts. Arancine ($5), large rice balls that are breaded and fried, come with meat sauce but are mushy and bland. I also sample another hearty special, penne gratinate ($12), my favorite dish on the menu. Penne is baked with bacon, mushrooms and artichokes in a white wine-laced alfredo sauce topped with bread crumbs. Penne amatriciana ($12) lacks the requisite spiciness and contains almost no pancetta.
On the dessert side, cannoli ($4) are excellent, stuffed full with rich, sweet cheese. A dense fondant cake packs a chocolaty punch on another visit, but hardly seems Italian.
Osteria La Giara offers a reasonably priced yet somewhat uneven dining experience. However, with a little more attention to detail and consistency, it has the potential to become a great new neighborhood spot for Short Pump, and an independent to boot. S
Osteria La Giara
201 Town Center West Blvd., No. 707
Lunch and dinner Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday Noon-10 p.m.