A Cut Above 

La Grotta celebrates a decade down under.

When we asked to be moved to a different room (the place has three distinct dining areas), the hostess reluctantly complied, but seated us at a small table even though there were plenty of larger unused ones. Again we balked, and we were moved to more spacious surroundings.

From that point on, the evening took a sharp turn for the better. Our waiter, Alberto Garcia, was professional, pleasant and informed.

Chef/owner Tony Capece has put together an ambitious menu, one that sets La Grotta apart not only from its older sibling, Amici, in Carytown, but also a notch above all of Richmond's other Northern Italian eateries.

Take, for example, an appetizer of frog legs served over polenta. Four tiny but succulent pairs, the meat falling off the bones, were sautéed in a chardonnay-based white sauce with chunks of tomatoes, peppers and spring onions, and garnished with flash-fried sticks of chives. The result was memorable.

Other appetizers, all of which are priced at $10, include baked mussels topped with bread crumbs and olive oil; thin slices of raw beef with lemon, capers and Parmesan; roasted red peppers in a garlic and anchovy milk sauce; and flash-fried squid with lemon and marinara sauce. The last dish was a step above normal thanks to the use of just-off-the-vine tomatoes.

Entrees range from $15 for sautéed chicken in a white wine sauce with pine nuts, pearl onions and bell peppers to $27 for a buffalo rib-eye steak with Gorgonzola and pistachio sauce.

Veal is the real test of an Italian restaurant, from those chewy, curled-up chunks you get in a pizza joint to the thin slices, pounded flat, offered at white-tablecloth dining rooms. La Grotta's current version is a sautéed scallopini covered by a huge mound of portobello mushrooms, along with fresh artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh thyme in the chardonnay sauce. Accompaniments may be escarole or another leafy vegetable and mashed potatoes or, better yet, homemade chips. All of this is accented by a too-pretty-to-eat orchid.

Other meat dishes include quail stuffed with mushrooms, chestnuts, sun-dried cranberries and sage; a filet mignon finished with green peppercorns and cognac; and a New York strip in a sauce of Dijon and fresh rosemary.

Seafood entrees are two shrimp dishes, over spaghetti or polenta; salmon with baby shrimp, leeks and diced tomatoes; sole with tomatoes, nuts, mushrooms and basil; and a seafood combination that, at least for one night, contained something not fresh.

The pastas are homemade and might include a special of half a dozen ravioli with generous chunks of lobster in a yellow-pepper sauce. There are also such regulars as gnocchi (potato pasta) with tomato and garlic sauce; short-quilled penne with prosciutto, shallots, basil and a creamy tomato sauce; cannelloni filled with beef, veal, vegetables and mozzarella; and ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta.

Chef Capece also finds time to make a signature dessert, a chocolate cup filled with various berries, served with a high-octane sauce of Marsala and champagne.

For the last three years, Capece has been ably assisted in the kitchen by sous-chef Matthew Foley, who soon will depart, along with the restaurant's longtime headwaiter, to run a third venue for Capece and his partner, Carlo Gaione, who is based at Amici.

Their new joint venture, Windows 27, will not be strictly Italian, but rather will offer both Mediterranean and American cuisine. The new place, scheduled to open in December, takes its name from its location, at 27 W. Broad St. (at Adams), another sign that this long-neglected corridor west of downtown is on the rise. S

La Grotta ($$$)
1218 E. Cary St.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30-11 p.m., Sunday 5:30-9 p.m.Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.


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