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Restaurant Road Trip: Strada 18 Draws Patrons with Italian Authenticity

This SoNo restaurant on Washington Street aspires to the quality of food and wine served at an Italian truck stop, but this South Norwalk eatery is not like any American truck stop you've ever seen.

 on Washington Street in SoNo is named for a highway hugging the western edge of Italy.

The name is more than symbolic, because Strada 18's mission is to attain the attributes of the food and wine served at an Italian truck stop.

Mind you, there's a sharp cultural divide between your standard American truck stop and the one co-owner David Raymer happened upon during a honeymoon drive from Florence to Siena in 1990.

There Raymer, who was practically born in a kitchen and has spent his whole career in one, had a "Eureka!" moment.

Why shouldn't exquisite Italian food be served with fine local wines in casual surroundings at a reasonable price? He said he knew of no such venue in the U.S.

With 35 years of high-end cooking in New York establishments under his belt, and in company with his longtime sous chef, Luciano Ramirez, and friend and winelover-businessman Steven Semaya as partners, Raymer opened Strada 18 on Washington Street in SoNo five years ago.

The idea caught on, and today Strada 18 is a SoNo mainstay, drawing in loyalists and new patrons alike with the scent of hand-rolled breadsticks emerging from the oven.

Not to mention offerings so authentically Italian that they're not even on the menu, such as lardo, the cured pork fat Raymer keeps on hand for special customers.

Raymer spoke to Patch recently as he munched on a salad that is also off the menu but can be ordered by discerning guests: a classic salad nicoise with added shrimp, calamari, octopus and mussels.

Like many a talented chef before him, Raymer aspired to create a signature pizza dough.

The toppings are especially creative at Strada 18—such as guanciale (pork cheeks), aged prosciutto di Parma, house-smoked salmon and 13 selections of cheese including house-made mozzarella—but it's the crust that makes or breaks it, in Raymer's estimation.

That brings the genial cook to a second "Eureka!" moment: the day he achieved the perfect pizza dough, a cross between a very thin, cracker-like crust mimicking the Italian style he loves with the chewiness and doughiness of what he calls "New Haven-style."

Would the food aficionado care to share his secret for his perfect pizza crust?

"No! No!" comes the impassioned response, in a spirit reminiscent of a Neapolitan pizza man protesting a strike of tomato growers.

Strada 18 has big charm.

The bar itself was once a heroic-size cherry tree. It's thick and wide and seats 10 patrons, who may choose from among 400 wines chosen by Semaya from small producers.

Altogether, Strada 18 seats 68, with four tables for two on the sidewalk.

The menu goes way beyond pizza.

Entree salads are hearty and include "organic Canadian king salmon" with brown rice. The salad nicoise's yellowfin tuna is house-canned.

Beyond the traditional baked pastas, the menu offers a roasted branzino ($26), grilled hanger steak and a braise of the day. Prix fixe menus are available for lunch and dinner on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The dessert menu has its share of surprises, all prepared on the premises.

Chocolate and pistachio gelato are available, but so are olive oil gelato and Guinness stout gelato (have to be 21). The oil & vinegar dessert  combines olive oil gelato with fig balsamic vinegar ($5.50). Black pepper biscotti ($4.50) are served with an individual French Press pot of coffee ($4).

Good humor reigns at Strada 18.

Strada 18 is located at 122 Washington Street. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Call 203-853-4546 for a reservation. Fax 203-838-3465. www.Strada18.com.

Editor's note: For another recent article on an Italian restaurant, this one in Greenwich, see "."

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