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DINING/HAUPPAUGE; Where Word-of-Mouth Is Well Deserved

By JOANNE STARKEY

Published: October 8, 2006

I'M not a mind reader, but when a friend says, ''I just went to a wonderful Italian restaurant in Hauppauge ,'' I can finish the sentence: ''Cafe La Strada.'' This agreeable spot has been inspiring hyperbole for 12 years. Why did it take me so long to see for myself that the enthusiastic word-of-mouth was warranted?

An unassuming double storefront in a small shopping strip next door to a Mobil station, it gives no hint of the delights within. One is the basket of housemade breads hot from the oven: addictive garlic sticks crusted with Parmesan, an herb loaf swirled with rosemary, cracked black pepper and olive oil, and ordinary Italian bread that was far from ordinary.

That bread was a harbinger of things to come. My dream meal at Cafe La Strada would begin with two specials, the grilled octopus appetizer and the silken sea bass in fresh tomato sauce, and end with the menu's light-as-air lemon cheesecake. When one diner asked if the octopus were chewy, our waiter put that worry to rest, explaining that it was simmered for a few hours till tender, marinated and then grilled. It arrived with a gloss of vinaigrette and halved grape tomatoes.

Hugo Bua, who owns the restaurant with his sons, Steven and Robert, comes from a family of chefs. His father cooked at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome; he himself taught at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park; his son Steven is in the kitchen at Cafe La Strada. (Hugo roams the dining room.)

Hugo Bua loves wine. The stylish main dining room features three walls of floor-to-ceiling wine racks. The fourth wall displays a mural of wine making in Italy. The second room includes a lively bar with a few tables around it as well as a dining area, separated by more wine racks, that often accommodates large groups or private parties.

In addition to the wine in those racks, there is an extensive cellar of 30,000 bottles. There are offerings that carry price tags in the thousands, but this is a list for wine lovers, not wine snobs. Bottles start at $19 and there are plenty of good picks in the $20's, including a lovely vouvray at $21 and a Chianti Classico at $28.

Menu prices are also moderate, with only three entrees more than $20. (Some of the specials are also higher.) Good choices from the menu were a classic veal saltimbocca crowned with prosciutto, sautéed in butter and white wine and served on a bed of spinach; a gentrified chicken scarpariello: off the bone in a red-wine sauce dotted with bits of sweet garlic; and a standout hay-and-straw pasta tossed in a lush cream sauce with mushrooms, prosciutto, onions and peas.

Winning specials were a thick, succulent veal chop in a Marsala-mushroom sauce and fork-tender beef short ribs with a tomato gravy sparked by orange zest and minced vegetables.

As good as the sea bass was, a special of salmon in butter-caper sauce was overcooked and disappointing.

Hitting a bull's-eye at the beginning of the meal were a special of oysters Rockefeller napped with Mornay sauce and a bit of spinach, and the menu's polenta appetizer, which was hearty enough for a main course with its sausage slices, mushrooms, tomatoes and Marsala sauce.

Every entree price includes a small but impeccably fresh salad of romaine, shredded carrot and red cabbage and a slice of local tomato in a balsamic vinaigrette, and a choice of a pasta side dish or vegetable. One night the personable waiter failed to ask what side dish we preferred and brought neither until we reminded him. That server was also not on hand to guide the runners delivering the food from the kitchen. On another night our waiter was just as amiable and very sharp, and the service was seamless.

Except for ice creams and sorbets, all desserts are housemade. Recommended choices include the excellent lemon cheesecake, a decadent chocolate mousse cake with a ganache topper and a crisp Napoleon of layered puff pastry and pastry cream.

Cafe La Strada
352 Wheeler Road
Hauppauge
(631) 234-5550
www.licafelastrada.com

VERY GOOD

THE SPACE -- Modest double storefront with a wine motif. Wheelchair accessible.

THE CROWD -- Casual mix of couples and large family groups.

THE BAR -- Lively, with some diners eating at the bar, where there are four tables. Wine list of 30,000 bottles starting at $19 and going into the thousands. Wines by the glass, $7.50.

THE BILL -- Lunch entrees, $11.95 to $28.95. Dinner entrees, $13.95 to $28.95.

WHAT WE LIKE -- The bread basket, grilled octopus, polenta, oysters Rockefeller, veal chop, veal saltimbocca, sea bass in fresh tomato sauce, short ribs, chicken scarpariello, hay and straw pasta, lemon cheesecake, chocolate mousse cake, Napoleon.

IF YOU GO -- Open noon to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday; Saturday from 5 till 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations are strongly recommended.

Reviewed Oct. 8, 2006

 
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