Review: New La Strada offers more than you’d expect

Molly Abraham

It’s almost a guarantee that a first-time visitor to La Strada is in for a surprise. What little coffee shop offers marble-topped tables under tiny crystal chandeliers, polished European servers in crisp white dress shirts and ties, and a creative menu of authentic Italian dishes, along with its lattes and cappucinos made with the beans from Caffe Vergano 1882?

This gem of a place does, and it delivers much more than expected. Open just since November, it is quickly taking its place as a downtown Birmingham destination, serving light breakfast, lunch and — starting this week — dinner, as well.

Those who know proprietor Zharko Palushaj aren’t really surprised, however. He is the creative mind behind the acclaimed Troy restaurant, Tre Monti, and he has put just as much effort into this new spot, with a pair of European chefs in the kitchen and the kind of well-trained crew that has the place running smoothly after just a few weeks.

Service at La Strada is the kind that can spoil a person. The well-dressed staff takes care of diners in seamless fashion, bringing the colorful fare, including lovely thin-crusted Margherita and Bianca pizzas, well-balanced minestrone, and composed salads, such as the golden beet and Burrata salad that was a special last week, on pure white plates and bowls.

Panini include the San Daniele, so named because it includes the 24-month aged San Daniele prosciutto, along with delicate mozzarella di bufala, heirloom tomatoes and arugula on the house rustic ciabbatta bread. The menu is concise, dedicated to what La Strada intends, with pristine ingredients in every dish. It’s not an is-everyone-happy? menu, but one that makes sense for the 55-seat capacity and the size of the kitchen.

Breads and pastries are housemade, some at La Strada and others at Tre Monti, where there is more space. Pastries include such confections as filled-to-order cannoli, Neapolitan rum cake (baba), profiteroles and tiramisu, and the price range across the board is gentle, especially given the quality. Crepes with fruit, gelato or chocolate are other sweet endings.

When the liquor license arrives — and the city of Birmingham has already given its approval — there will be wine to accompany the fare. And that is the only alcoholic beverage that will be served.

For now, there are freshly squeezed grapefruit and orange juices, and, of course, an impressive list of coffees and teas.

La Strada, as its name states, is a cafe, with the informality that suggests. It is a drop-in kind of place, a little haven on a busy downtown street where it’s fine to stop by simply for a coffee to go, yet it manages to deliver four-star quality.

La Strada Caffe e Dolci

243 East Merrill, Birmingham

Call: (248) 480-0492

Rating: ★★★★

Hours: 7 a.m-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun. Closed Mon.

Prices: Breakfast dishes $5.95-$9.95, soup, sandwiches and salads $4.50-$12.95, entrees $9.95-$15.95. desserts $3.95-$8.95.

Credit cards: All major

Liquor: License pending

Noise level: Low

Parking: Nearby municipal structure and street

Wheelchair access: No barriers

What the ratings mean

★— routine ★★ — good

★★1/2 — very good ★★ — excellent

★★★★ — outstanding