Chef/Owner Tony Capece, who also owns Amici in Carytown, opened La Grotta 10 years ago. His authentic menu uses classic ingredients for those of us who really love this cuisine and we're not talking Olive Garden Italian. The food here is primarily Northern Italian with dining in courses (appetizer, salad, pasta course, meat/seafood course and dessert) emphasized. Diners can opt for the tasting menu (ranging from $35 to $50 per person) or order a la carte with appetizers beginning in the $9.95 range and entrees offered between $14.95 and $26.95. Wines by the bottle begin at $20 and go up from there.
All of the ingredients are in place for a first-rate dining experience. But there are no certainties in the restaurant world, even when such an excellent reputation is in play.
A fried calamari appetizer was lightly battered and served with a classic marinara sauce, yet arrived barely warm. The pepperoni in bagna caoda, a garlic/anchovy-infused sauce, covers a platter of four sliced roasted red peppers. It's a nice combination, and an atypical take on the traditional bagna caoda (literally translated as "hot bath") which is commonly served fondue style.
Both appetizers arrived more than 45 minutes after we had ordered them and after we noticed another table, which had been seated after us, enjoying their first course. The bread basket was long empty (though it did have a wonderful homemade sundried tomato oil for dipping). Just as we were about to ask for more bread to mop up the delicious bagna cauda sauce still swimming on the plate, our server suddenly yanked up our dishes. She asked if we were finished after the plates were already in her hands, and promptly marched away, never listening to our responses. This became the norm for the rest of the evening.
After another extensive lull with empty water glasses, an empty bottle of wine, and a still empty bread basket, two out of the four entrees we ordered arrived. "Please, go ahead and eat" was heard more than once as all four of us sat like Pavlov's dogs staring at the steam escaping from the two plates already on the table. The bisteca di bufalo, a sautéed buffalo rib-eye steak with a Gorgonzola and pistachio-enhanced sauce, was cooked to a perfect medium rare.
The penne all' paplina was also hot and delicious. It was covered in a fresh tomato sauce enhanced with cream diced proscuitto, minced shallots with basil. The gamberoni fra diavolo was also enjoyable with plenty of jumbo shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce. But since this dish was the last to arrive, our dining partner was still eating long after we had finished.
We passed on dessert. The check arrived with remarkable swiftness, and we were repeatedly asked, "May I take that up?" Once the check was signed with tip, it was quickly removed and we were offered a "you guys have a great night" making the entire evening seem very TGI Fridays, though with a solid three-figure debt.
Lunch, on the other hand, was far more pleasant. The homemade Gnocchi al Ragu ($8.50) were outstanding in their thick, meaty sauce, as was the Sogliola Aurora ($9.95) a breaded sautéed filet of sole sauced with a mixture of white wine, cream and shiitake mushrooms and served with creamy polenta. Both of the entrees were piping hot and our host was more than gracious, often striking up friendly conversation and keeping us up on the status of our meals.
It's a shame that a single evening of inferior service can leave a mark, but fine dining does require exceptional attention and tact, especially when patrons are spending top dollar. Having dined at La Grotta and Amici several times over the past years, I know that less than mediocre service is not the norm for either establishment. A single off-night has not compelled me to remove La Grotta from my list of great places to dine anytime soon because the fact is, bad nights and even bad servers sometimes happen. La Grotta's reputation in Richmond is longstanding, and I feel certain it will remain intact. S La Grotta
1218 East Cary Street
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30-11 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m.
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