Frederico Fellini, one of Italy’s most famous filmmakers once said, “Life is a combination of Magic and Pasta.” For those who share his passion, there’s Chef Michael Schlow’s Italian restaurant Alta Strada in the Mosaic District. Alta Strada brings the element of chic and urban to the neighborhood,
and the locals heartily approve.
Northern Virginia’s enthusiasm for pasta was clearly on display one weekend night, when I found Alta Strada packed with assorted clientele sampling the restaurant’s signature Campari-based cocktails and slurping up homemade noodles. Even on weekdays, this restaurant stays busy with the after-work crowd and families too.
They’re coming for the food, because it’s really good. But the décor is the perfect palate for those imaginative dishes and drinks. The design is a mix of modern and vintage, with salvaged timber beams, wooden and metal chandeliers, as well as white lights strung across the ceiling. White subway-style tiles around the bars conjure images of New York’s Little Italy, while hanging plants add a homey feeling. Schlow’s wife Adrienne created the colorful artwork on the walls. The restaurant’s concrete floors make it a pretty loud when there’s a crowd.
Supervising the kitchen is Nicole Belvard, the executive chef who formerly worked at Jose Andres’ Zaytinya. A graduate of Johnson and Wales culinary school, she also trained in France but now lives in Northern Virginia. She clearly understands her community’s enthusiasm for dining out, and she has taught her team to handle a crowd with grace. Both the wait and bar staff are sharp and knowledgeable. Our server exhibited endless patience with my group who was compelled to ask about every dish on the menu. It made me wonder, why is it so important to order the perfect thing? I guess because Schlow’s reputation as a James Beard awarded chef adds pressure to the decision. Diners come to experience what makes Alta Strada so popular.
And while it’s tempting to ask dozens of questions about the menu, I encourage you to put your fears to rest. Rather than worry about finding the best dish, worry about trying multiple ones, because so many are distinctive. For example, my group ordered various versions of their pastas, and no one was disappointed.
If you’re starting with appetizers, Alta Strada has crusty bread perfect for scooping up their housemade ricotta with herbs or the eggplant caponata. The restaurant offers a notable bowl of crunchy meatballs with spicy tomato sauce, perfect for sharing. Don’t miss the roasted cauliflower tossed with bread crumbs and Parmigiano. Everyone in our group enjoyed this dish, so we ordered two.
At lunch, the restaurant features a few towering sandwiches and hand cut fries. At brunch, you can order traditional breakfast dishes and Italian favorites like homemade spaghetti.
The entrees on the dinner menu steer away from exclusively Italian to seafood, chicken and steak dishes. If you’re worrying about carbs, you’ll find the salmon on a bed of cous cous, with yogurt and spinach satisfying. The Old Fashioned Lemon Chicken consists of a butterflied breast under tangy roasted skins, served with slices of prosciutto and slivers of roasted asparagus.
Alta Strada’s oven produces crisp thin crust pizzas with puffy air pockets and a variety of toppings. Little Stevie’s is a standout for its savory fennel sausage, garlicy broccoli rabe and hot pickled peppers. You can also design your own if you want to create a new combination.
But what brings me back to Alta Strada is the pasta. I relish the blends of ingredients Alta Strada uses to freshen up old school Italian noodles. Fat strings of housemade noodles called Casarecce are coated with crunchy walnut pesto, then brightened with the sweetness of cherry tomatoes and the saltiness of sautéed shrimp. Wide flat noodles called Tagliatelle are tangled around rich, peppery Bolognese sauce with a heavy dose of Parmigiano cheese. Curly Mafalde pasta is smoky and sultry, thanks to the truffle butter and mushrooms, sprinkled with pecorino.
If you have any room, consider the trio of housemade gelato with shortbread cookies or the vanilla ricotta cheesecake on a Guanaja Valrhona chocolate brownie topped with crispy caramel nuggets. I mentioned earlier that some of Alta Strada’s cocktails are made with Italian Campari plus multiple accompaniments like Negroni and prosecco. These are quite tasty. You might also like the Sage Against the Machine that combines limoncello with sprigs of sage, bitters and a sparkling rose wine. At Alta Strada, guests may feel like throwing their cares away and adopting La Dolce Vita!
This enchanting menu and its upscale vibe give Alta Strada the feeling of downtown dining in the Mosaic District.