By Wendy White Philcox
Photography by Tammy Harrow and Chris Philcox
When I think of Italian dining, it always brings up images of romance and nostalgia for me. I think of one of my favorite Billy Joel songs: “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and can hear him crooning, “A bottle of red. a bottle of white. It all depends upon your appetite...” I think of the quintessential neighborhood Italian restaurant in one of my favorite films, Moonstruck. Grand Ticino was the bustling, iconic setting for marriage proposals, budding romance, and family gatherings. Lastly, one of my first jobs was waiting tables at an Italian restaurant in my hometown of Jacksonville about the same size as La Strada Italian Restaurant. We served Italian and Greek specialties with a focus on seafood—and I am always reminded of those fond memories, comforting flavors and warm, family-style atmosphere when I dine at La Strada located in St. Augustine Beach.
What is it about Italian restaurants that feels so storied? So timeless? So connected with emotions and important occasions? Perhaps it’s the passion for food and life that Italians bring to the table, both literally and figuratively.
La Strada, opened in July of 2002 by Chef-owner Mark DeRusso, is a relection in every way of his Italian-American heritage and his many personal passions—from the New York Mets baseball team to one of his favorite films, The Godfather, to legendary Italian-American singers like Frank Sinatra. Memorabilia, movie stills, paintings of famous Italian destinations and tributes to the city that never sleeps are part of the decor while the music selection favors vintage Rat Pack ballads and jazzy hits from the 1950s and 60s. As a native New Yorker, Chef DeRusso has brought a flavor of his background to every corner of the restaurant.
And, speaking of flavor, bold flavor defines the menu and cuisine at La Strada. “Italian cooks are relentless in the pursuit of the best ingredients and I take keeping that tradition alive in my own restaurant very seriously,” he comments. Chef ReRusso sources fresh local seafood, freshly grown produce and herbs and handcrafts all sauces to make outstanding Italian standards (from Chicken Marsala to Veal Parmigiana) as well as specialties of the house that are uniquely his.
A graduate of the Hudson County Culinary Institute in Jersey City, N.J., Chef DeRusso honed his cooking skills at several restaurants in the Tri-State area before moving to St. Augustine where he distinguished himself as executive chef of Aruanno’s, a popular Italian restaurant in St. Augustine beach that operated from the mid 1980s till 2004.
In 2000, Chef DeRusso took the plunge into restaurant ownership and opened the doors at La Strada. Located in the heart of St. Augustine Beach, Chef DeRusso created the kind of restaurant he himself would like to go to—the neighborhood Italian restaurant of his memories.
Classic Italian-American specialties such as baked pasta dishes and beefy lasagna, sauteed chicken and veal scallopini dishes, and good old spaghetti with homemade Italian meatballs stir the memory.
But Chef DeRusso extends far beyond the expected Italian-American fare. Wild mushroom ravioli are tossed with brandy cream sauce and topped with oven roasted tomatoes. Lobster ravioli are served in a light tomato cream sauce with oven roasted tomatoes and a grating of Romano cheese. Tortellini filled with delicately seasoned and minced veal are tossed with prosciutto, sliced mushrooms and delicated spring peas in a tomato cream sauce.
Linguine with classic red or white clam sauce is always on the menu for those who love it but, when it comes to seafood and pasta combinations, Chef DeRusso sets himself apart from every other restaurant in town with his presentation and authentic flavors. His Frutti di Mare pasta dishes, brimming with a selection of fresh shellfish, calamari, shrimp and lobster tails, are nothing short of spectacular, capturing the attention of everyone in the dining room. And, if the eyes don’t have it, the nose does when Chef DeRusso’s garlicky Shrimp Scampi, using extra large locally caught shrimp, is paraded through the dining room. If you hadn’t made up your mind, that usually does it.
Never content to rest on his laurels and always striving for a point of distinction for La Strada, pasta, seafood and sautéed specialties are only half of the equation on Chef DeRusso’s ambitious menu that is truly unique in St. Augustine. Meat cookery is a passion for Chef DeRusso, and he is proud to boast the largest selection of steaks in St. Augustine Beach including Porterhouse, T-bone, New York Strip, Filet Mignon and Top Sirloin steaks grilled to order. In addition, specialties of the house include a 14-ounce rack of New Zealand lamb with a Dijon-herb crust and Duck a La Strada, a half roasted duckling in a signature cranberry-port wine sauce.
Chef DeRusso’s menu promotes food and wine pairing, and the largest selection of Italian wines in St. Augustine assures you will find just the right varietal or vintage to complement your meal. “Wine is an all-important element of Italian dining,” DeRusso comments. “We cook with fine wines and we serve fine wines. Wine is a big part of the authentic Italian-American dining experience we offer.”
From housemade soups to delectable desserts, La Strada’s food and ambiance create the perfect repast that may, like me, remind you of the past. And it is an experience that you will definitely want to repeat again and again!
La Strada serves dinner nightly with Early Bird Dinners and Happy Hour drink specials offered from 4-6 p.m. Reservations recommended.
“ITALIAN COOKING IS IN
MY BLOOD. I CAN'T IMAGINE
DOING ANYTHING ELSE.”
—CHEF-OWNER MARK DERUSSO
“I LOVE PREPARING FRESH
SEAFOOD WITH ITALIAN FLAIR.
ITALIAN FLAVORS AND SEAFOOD
WERE MEANT TO BE TOGETHER.”
—CHEF-OWNER MARK DERUSSO
La Strada Italian Restaurant
4075 A1A South • St. Augustine Beach
(904) 471-0081 • www.lastradaitalianrestaurant.com