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The restaurant´s extensive wine selection is on display in the dining room.
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La Grotta's sweet, tender veal is lightly sautéed and topped with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts.
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The tiramisù stands out among the dessert temptations.
On the corner of 13th and East Cary streets in Shockoe Slip is a hidden treasure of Richmond dining. Descend the terra-cotta tile stairs, and you'll find one of the best Italian restaurants in the region. La Grotta Italian Ristorante opened in 1994, and chef/owner Antonio Capece and his staff have been serving wonderful food ever since.
The inviting dining experience begins with the décor of iron railings, dark wood and bright white tablecloths. On a quiet Tuesday evening, the staff had no trouble finding a table for our party of three. In the dining room was a varied group of patrons, ranging from after-work gatherings to single diners. I must pause here to point out the respect with which the single diners were treated — they were seated at good tables in the main room, not secreted in a corner somewhere. I saw no evidence that the solo diners were any less important to La Grotta than a table of eight. Now that's service.
We were seated promptly, and our very professional waiter delivered our beverages and then described the daily specials in mouthwatering detail. We had planned to split an appetizer of scallops and crab meat in a cream sauce, but the chef had substituted oysters that night, so we ordered those instead. They were sweet, succulent and not overcooked. La Grotta also offers an antipasto of the day that is always tasty and attractive. (On previous occasions, I have had the chef's chicken-liver mousse, which was exquisite with a perfect texture, no bitterness and flawless seasoning.)The bread basket contained foccacia, breadsticks and a wonderful Italian bread, all accompanied by a flavored olive oil.
My test for an Italian restaurant is always the veal, which is usually overcooked and drowned in a heavy sauce. Not at La Grotta. My tender, sweet veal was lightly sautéed and topped with portobello mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts. Each vegetable had been cut to the same size, so they cooked evenly. A wine reduction with thyme produced a succulent sauce. Accompanied by wonderful mashed potatoes and the vegetable of the day, the meal was a perfect serving size, and every drop of the sauce was picked up by the potatoes, so I didn't leave a teaspoon.
Handsome Husband is a red-meat lover, and the buffalo rib-eye steak with Gorgonzola and pistachio sauce caught his eye. The flavorful meat arrived from the kitchen seared on the outside and exactly as ordered in the middle. He shared one bite, and the combination of the salty cheese and rich meat was spot-on. I know he didn't leave a bite, because if he had, I would have stolen it. Good ingredients that are cooked well always make for a great dining experience.
Our 22-year-old daughter joined us for dinner, and she is a fan and connoisseur of Caesar salads. (She was also saving room for dessert.) The salad was crisp and the dressing freshly made, but the croutons were the standout feature. They were flavorful, just the right size, and precisely the proper texture. She didn't leave a morsel either. I also noted that the lettuce had been torn, not cut. These are small points, but they show this kitchen's attention to details.
The extensive wine list ranges from good everyday wines to once-in-a-lifetime bottles. The staff is glad to assist you in selecting a bottle, but they also have a lovely assortment of wines by the glass.
The menu includes house-made ravioli, which I have ordered on other visits. Perfectly tender, these pasta pillows never dominate the filling but enrobe it in a velvet casing ready to be sauced. There are always chef's specials, and if you're a pasta fan, don't pass up the house-made stuffed pastas. This is the way ravioli is supposed to be.
The reason our daughter was saving room for dessert is that both she and her dad have named tiramisù their favorite dessert. And at La Grotta, they are right. Tender and flavorful, it rested in a stunning crème anglaise, swirled with dark chocolate. I am very lucky that they shared, but I had to be quick, as it disappeared quickly. There are other temptations on the dessert menu, but the tasting of the tiramisù left no room.
La Grotta's service is professional and pleasant. They take reservations, offer free parking in a nearby lot and serve some of the best food in town — a perfect combination for a great restaurant.
1218 E. Cary St., 644-2466
Prices: Lunch appetizers and salads $3.50 to $9, pastas $8.50 to $9, entrées $8.50 to $13 (three-, four- and five-course options range from $21 to $28). Dinner appetizers $11 to $13, salads $6.50 to $11, pastas $17 to $20, entrées $17 to $29.
Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, and 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.