Review: La Strada Dolci e Caffe is a vacation for your mouth

And the rest of your senses too.

Bianca Pizza - EVOO,
burrata, prosciutto
San Daniele, arugula
Bianca Pizza - EVOO, burrata, prosciutto San Daniele, arugula Photo by Scott Spellman

La Strada Dolci e Caffe

243 E. Merrill St., Birmingham 248-480-0492 Open 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Prices: $2-$14.95 | Wheelchair accessible
See photos from our visit!

If you've ever been in one of the many small cafes that dot the streets of countless towns and cities in Italy, then you've inevitably longed to go back. They're usually tucked away in a tiny storefront alongside a cobblestone road congested with Vespas maneuvering their way through traffic. Seating is somewhat scarce. You may find it outdoors on the sidewalk or maybe a few stools inside where customers neatly sip on espresso. A deli case is usually filled to capacity with a variety of cured meats, pungent cheeses, decadent pastries, and everything baked. They're the kind of places where you grab and go, or if you stay, you're more likely to stand, instead of sit. Just enough for a quick pick-me-up as you go about your day.

You may ask yourself why there are no such places stateside, and, trust us, we've contemplated that every time we've been cornered into settling for a premade, microwave sandwich and harshly roasted coffee at Starbucks. It's just not the same.

Enter La Strada Dolci e Caffe in Birmingham. It takes you away to those intimate little European bistros and, unlike the typical coffee shops here in the United States, they don't skimp on the niceties of service, ambiance, and, more importantly, food.

La Strada (not to be confused with a similarly named Strada eatery in Royal Oak) is the brainchild of award-winning restaurateur Zharko Palushaj, who's behind the successful sit-down Tre Monti in Troy. The upscale spot that sits behind the San Marino Club on Big Beaver Road has a long-established reputation for gourmet Italian cuisine, but what he felt has been lacking is a place that emphasized rustic fare that's no less special.

The inspiration came a few years ago when Palushaj and his wife visited Italy during their honeymoon. He found himself frequenting small cafes in Rome and got a look in his eye as if he were onto something. He reassured his wife that he just liked the vibe, but from the start, a seed was planted for the concept to jump the pond and find its way to Michigan.

Step inside the 50-or-so-seat establishment and you're transported from metro Detroit suburbia and whisked away to Roma. You'll have the freedom to decide whether to order a quick cappuccino to go at the barista counter, or have a seat at one of the many granite four-tops, cozy up at intimate window side booths, or lounge about with friends on the elegant, upholstered sofas toward the back.

You'll be charmed by any number of sharply dressed servers, some of whom who are known for giving you a hug or a sturdy handshake when you walk in the door. They give everyone the VIP treatment, whether they're offering to run out to the street to refill your parking meter or describing the aging process of the Italian-imported prosciutto.

We start with a latte made with superbly roasted Caffe Vergnano 1882 and exquisitely detailed foam art. There's also freshly squeezed orange juice, ideal for pairing with brunch. From there, we're free to choose from a menu that offers quite a range: from just a little something light to a full-scale dining experience. On the lighter side, go for a flaky croissant or toast, with choice of marmalade, European cream cheese, Nutella, or truffle honey. A variety of savory and sweet crêpes are artfully plated and simple, yet quite indulgent.

On to lunch and dinner fare: The thin crust pizzas rival any pizzeria found in Italy, the meat and cheese plates are bountiful and perfect for sharing, and the minestrone soup is flavorful, especially when the server grinds pepper over it. Salads are never boring; in fact, the otherwise ordinary Caesar comes in a dainty bowl made out of crispy Parmesan and is topped with prosciutto speck and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Our favorite of the salads was the burrata, served with poached apricot, semi-dry tomatoes, pepper, smoked sea salt, and extra virgin olive oil. It tasted farm-fresh and, when accompanied with bread and greens, is a meal unto itself that we wouldn't mind eating every day.

Our dining guest went for a polpette di vitello panino and says the meatball-to-bread ratio leans more to the bread — a good thing considering the deliciousness of the rustic ciabatta. We also sampled the spaghetti alla carbonara, made with gold-die-cut Verrigni spaghettini, Guanciale, duck egg yolks, coarsely ground pepper, and pecorino. The pasta was nice and al dente, with the sauce subtle and balanced well with the bacon.

As for dessert, taking a look at the pastry bar might be overwhelming (in a good way), thanks to the piles of tiny, colorful macarons, the airy parfait cups, tiramisu, plus filled-to-order cannoli.

Palushaj is awaiting a liquor license and intends on serving what's appropriate for the vibe the cafe has captured. So, yes: lots of wine, some vermouth, maybe some digestifs — not so much craft cocktails. He's also got plans for live music and al fresco dining when patio season arrives.

In a dining landscape increasingly intent on giving customers trendy takes on gastropub fare, or a cold, modern aesthetic, La Strada is a European throwback to dining that's simple, yet lovingly prepared.

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