The calamari "la gra" at La Gra Italian Tapas were tasty: the squid tender, the breading light, crisp and not at all greasy. Marinara sauce was served on the side for dipping. It wasn't spicy, as the menu claimed, but it was a fine accent.
If that sounds identical to just about every order of fried calamari you've had well, it was. The calamari certainly have nothing in common with the shrimp "la gra" (shrimp sautéed in a white wine, lemon and butter sauce) or the salad "la gra" (tomato, cucumber and red onion in a red wine and herb vinaigrette). Except, of course, that you can find all three dishes at this new Dogtown restaurant.
La Gra opened this spring at the Tamm Avenue address once occupied by Spaghetteria Mama Mia. It shares the space with Cairdeas Coffee, which recently relocated from a much smaller spot a block north on Tamm. Lou and Andrea Barrale own both the restaurant and the café. Gra is Gaelic for love, cairdeas Gaelic for friendship.
The restaurant is small and rather dim: a bar with a few tables; a dining room facing the kitchen pass. Next to the pass is a bussing station, an unattractive bleed-over from the café. Your best bet, weather permitting, is one of several patio tables.
La Gra's opening slipped past my radar. I heard about the place from a reader and then, weeks later, from a colleague, but nowhere else. Still, the idea of "Italian tapas" was intriguing even if, these days, mere mention of the term tapas sets my alarm bells ringing.
You probably know that the concept of tapas in the original Spanish sense is much different from tapas in the United States. In Spain the point of tapas isn't really the food itself, but drinking and socializing in a succession of tapas bars. The food feeds the fun. Though St. Louis does have a few places that serve more or less authentic tapas dishes Guido's Pizza & Tapas and Modesto, both on the Hill, come to mind we don't really have any authentic tapas bars. I suspect most American cities don't.
Here, of course, when we say tapas, we usually mean "small plates." In the right hands, a meal of small plates can be a wonderful way to dine, a progression of flavors and textures, often with striking presentations and humorous takes on classic dishes. Even if you don't care about the aesthetic or intellectual side of food, you can try several different dishes without busting your gut.
Though Italian cuisine might not seem a likely candidate for the small-plates approach, Italian dining in America has been moving away from big bowls of pasta in red sauce to a more traditional, multiple-course approach. St. Louis is catching on to this, if slowly. Consider the new Maplewood restaurant Acero (reviewed in our May 31 issue), where you can easily build a terrific meal out of antipasto platters and smaller portions of pasta.
You might try something similar at La Gra. I liked the antipasto platter, a spread of ham, capicola and mortadella (I think those were the meats, at least more on that later) and a fine, if not exactly earth-shattering, selection of Havarti, fontina and Gorgonzola cheeses. The fruit and cheese platter was a little stingy on the cheese but did have plump grapes and crisp apple slices. And as I said above, the fried calamari were a satisfying appetizer.
Satisfying, but conventional. On the whole, La Gra's menu offers few surprises. It's not St. Louis Italian, exactly, but it doesn't stray far. The portions are generally smaller, of course, but you can also order big bowls of pasta, and even a few dishes with Provel.
Beef spiedini were grilled pieces of beef stuffed with Provel, salami, tomato and onion. These were served in an amogio sauce (lemon, olive oil, white wine and garlic). Not a bad combination of flavors overall, but the Provel cast its bland pall over the dish. Provel is absent from chicken spiedini chicken with garlic, lemon and herbs in amogio sauce but the dish isn't any more exciting than what you might throw together at home.
In truth, most of the small plates I tried suffered from the same malady. There's nothing wrong with shrimp in a sauce of white wine, butter and lemon (the shrimp "la gra") I often make something similar when I'm too busy or tired to come up with something else.
Which is my point.
There's not much imagination here. Pan-fried tomato-basil cakes are topped with a simple sauté of green and red bell peppers, garlic and onions. Grilled chunks of portobello mushroom slightly overgrilled, when I tried them are stuffed with peppers and garlic and served in a sauce of (wait for it...) white wine, lemon and garlic. It came as no surprise that we could also have ordered toasted ravioli and spinach-artichoke dip.
Full-size entrées are pasta dishes, including a "build-your-own" option in which you choose a sauce, vegetable and/or protein. Vegetable lasagna is your best bet here, flavorful and a generous hunk for the money. The penne in two dishes penne with peas, prosciutto and mushrooms in garlic-cream sauce; and penne with chicken in amogio sauce (a companion put the latter together from the build-your-own menu) were overcooked. Also, the sizable pieces of prosciutto in the former pasta looked and tasted a lot like run-of-the-mill ham. If it wasn't ham, then it was not very good prosciutto.
I was similarly baffled by the antipasto plate. According to the menu, this should bring salami, ham and prosciutto. But when I ordered it, the prosciutto seemed more like capicola, and the salami was mortadella or bologna of some sort. If there was a reason for the substitution, our server didn't mention it. (Nor, to be fair, did we ask.)
Service is very friendly. When four of us had to wait at the bar for a patio table, several different servers checked on the next available table for us, and the bartender remained affable even when all four of us were content with water.
The wine list is brief and not very distinguished, but it is cheap; you can get a glass of quaffable Robert Mondavi red for less than $5. Drinks tended to take a while to reach the table, but flights of small plates generally arrived promptly.
As you might guess, the dessert menu includes tiramisu, cheesecake and a flourless chocolate cake. The one original option was a "cheesecake lollipop" from nearby Sugaree Baking Company. It's roughly the shape and size of a Tootsie Pop, and it arrives upside down between two puffs of whipped cream and squiggles of chocolate sauce. The exterior is a hard shell of something vaguely like white chocolate. The interior is cheesecake-like in texture. I couldn't discern much flavor, though, above the too-sweet shell.
Then again, like every small plate, after two or three bites it was already a memory.