Al Di La, a Northern Italian trattoria, has been a darling of the Avondale neighborhood since 2002, when it was truly a labor of love for then-chef and owner John Marshall.
Al Di La
Cuisine: Northern ItalianCategory: Neighborhood Favorite; Date NightLocation: 25 Magnolia Road, West AshleyPhone: 571-2321Hours: Lunch Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m-3 p.m., dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5:30-10 p.m. Happy hour in the bacaro Tuesday-Friday 4:30-6:30 p.m. Bacaro food service 5 p.m.-untilFood: 3 1/2Service: 3 1/2Atmosphere: 3Price: $-$$$Costs: Antipasti $4.50-$9.50, soups $5.25-$5.50, pastas and risottos $11-$16, secondi (entrees) $16-$23, desserts $6.75, daily specials MP. Also bacaro menu, lunch menu.Vegetarian Options: YesBar: Full-service bar; happy hour specials, wine flights, quartinos (250 ml)Decibel Level: Varies; animated to moderate.Wheelchair Access: Yes, but tight passage.Parking: Yes and neighborhood valet service.Other: Private events, outdoor patio dining, OpenTable, email@example.com, Facebook. Bacaro, 2013 Restaurant Week $20 and $30 menus. Daily specials MP.
It birthed the talented chef Michael Scognamiglio, who now operates his own southern Italian eatery, Bacco in Mount Pleasant, and its ownership has passed into the capable hands of Mark and Gillian Kohn.
The Kohns expanded the outdoor patio, added a bacaro, or Venetian working man’s pub, that manages overflow from the restaurant and operates with its own menu of chichetti, or bar snacks.
They fleshed out a lunch menu, stayed the course with the dinner offerings and this fall hired a new chef, Joaquin Bustos.
Bustos is from the Midwest and has more than 20 years of restaurant experience.
He attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, and he has held chef positions at nationally recognized restaurants such as Grand St. Cafe in Kansas City, Mo.; Yia Yia’s in Memphis, Tenn.; Eau Bistro in St. Louis; Vin Rouge in Durham, N.C.; and Lidia’s Italy in Kansas City, Mo., where he worked under well-known Italian chef Lidia Bastianich.
His heritage is Mexican and Italian, and both cultures have schooled him well in the pleasures of the table.
Al Di La continues to make its own bread and pastas. Sausages as well as desserts also are house-made.
The menu embraces the Northern Italian canon and in true Italian fashion celebrates the season on the plate.
Bustos is not tempted by the fancy and the fussy.
Capers may get a crisping oil bath and citrus segments are trimmed into pith-free supremes, but the efforts are in the ingredients, not in arranging or seducing the plate but allowing the dishes to speak in their own idiom.
Tuna crudo ($9.50) was pristine. Its pale pink flesh glossed with parsley oil, tart lemon sections, toasted pine nuts and a fragile tangled topping of micro greens made for a refreshing antipasto of the sea.
Mussels ($8.25) were steamed with sausage and fennel and finished with an anise-based liqueur. Grilled bread slices were a necessary accompaniment to lap at the shores of the well-flavored broth.
Pastas are available in half- and full portions. From classic fettuccine Bolognese ($10.50-$14.50) to strangozzi spoletina ($12-$16), you cannot err on the side of your appetite.
The strangozzi were sauced with sausage, pancetta nuggets, cream, nutmeg and lemon zest.
The dish was hearty and lively with an acid brace of lemon.
The house-made rosemary focaccia is generously replenished to make sopping up the sauces an easy game.
The secondi, or entrees, are varied and speak to both the season and the Lowcountry.
Short ribs are topped with a creative horseradish gremolata — a riff on the traditional lemon-garlic-parsley combination ($23).
Hunter-style chicken is served with local butter beans ($16), and fall vegetables were the companions to all the entrees.
Do try the veal ($18) that is pounded thin and served with skin-on mashed potatoes, pancetta bits and thinly sliced zucchini and yellow squash heaped in a tangle on top of the tender and well-cooked meat.
A neighboring table enjoyed the fresh catch of the day: tilefish and the shrimp and ricotta gnocchi ($11, $15).
Our server was attentive, well-informed of the menu and managed to maintain just the right balance of checking in on our needs.
The wine list is wonderful: A considered portfolio that marries well with the menu and is nicely priced by the glass and quartino.
The kitchen is able to hit the sweet spots of al dente and tender with equal aplomb.
It favors consistency over innovation but has enough twists to keep the interest of its “regulars.”
The cooking is competent, the flavors are pure and the presentation bears the Italian refinement of simplicity. The servers know their way around the menu, and the concise wine list marries the wines to the foods.
Bustos manages to straddle this restaurant’s comfortable past with a trained eye for the future.
Al Di La serves up a side of romance with an equal portion of homey familiarity. Is it any wonder why there is always a line at the door?