Richard L. Cravatts writer
"A luminary on the Boston dining scene, Michael Schlow became a revered figure for Boston gastronomes with the founding in 1999 of his restaurant Radius, soon referred to as one of the “25 Best American Restaurants in 2001” by Gourmet Magazine, “Best New Restaurant of 2000” by Food & Wine Magazine, and one of the “Best New Restaurants in America” by Esquire Magazine. That acclaim provided the impetus for two additional highly-regarded eateries: the seafood-dominated Great Bay at the Hotel Commonwealth and the Italian-inspired Via Matta, which opened in the Back Bay.
What the effusive Schlow has just accomplished with the opening of Alta Strada in Wellesley, is to use his gastronomic vision to launch a restaurant in the suburbs, far from the city’s bustle. The result is good news to local residents looking to forego the expense and hassle of going into Boston for a noteworthy meal.
Located on Central Street, steps from the corner of the Wellesley College campus and in the spot previously occupied by Figs, the 100-seat Alta Strada attempts, in Schlow’s words, to create a welcoming, trattoria-like spot in which regulars feel comfortable – a place that they will come to as if they were visiting “the house of a friend.” “I want the food to be very fresh,” he says, “very beautiful. Just food—alone.”
That philosophy extends to the physical quality of the restaurant as well: the David McMahon-designed 2500 square-foot dining room simply executed with exposed brick walls; a new, but intentionally-scuffed hardwood floor; a scratched-up zinc bar for appetizers, a light meal, or a glass of wine; pseudo-vaulted ceilings; soft lighting; banquettes with rustic-colored upholstery; and such informal touches as dining tables absent table cloths and dish cloths serving as napkins.
At Alta Strada, Italian for “the high road,” Chef Louis Morales, formerly at Radius and Via Matta, is the keeper of the Schlow culinary vision, offering a straightforward menu of classics primarily from the central and northern regions of Italy. Because of Schlow’s own desire to have guests sample widely from the offerings, it’s possible to make a complete meal of selections from what they call here the “Antipastitable.” He has designed them for sharing and, perhaps in conjunction with a pizza, pasta, or extravagant salad, for making a complete casual dining experience out of it. Antipasti are identically priced: one for $5, three for $13, and five selections for $22, the last option clearly designed for satisfying the tastes of a tableful of diners.
Generous plates brimming with glistening choices appear at the table, or at the “lunch” counter/bar, where diners can choose red and white Italian wines by the glass ($7-$14) from a list scrawled on the homey chalkboards on the wall above. Eggplant Caponata, with its Sicilian pedigree, is sprinkled with olives, garlic, tomatoes, and herbs. Sautéed Zucchini is laced with lemon and mint. Fat, vividly-red peppers, Pepperonata, have been cooked, marinated, and studded with salty capers. Earthy Mushrooms are roasted and finished with a balsamic/rosemary glaze. Plump, shiny White Sardines come on a bed of lemon-sprayed, frilly frisée. Homemade Ricotta, the satisfying result of curdling whole milk by adding vinegar or lemon juice to it, is perfumed with sage and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and served with toast slivers.
Primi, more generous—and expensive—starters, include airy-thin slices of salty Prosciutto with a decadent and sweet counterpoint of fig jam atop crisp crostini ($14); the stew-like, satisfying pasta and bean soup, Pasta e Fagioli ($7), brimming with tomato, garlic, beans, onions, and celery; or plump Shrimp with White Beans ($11), dressed in lemon juice and tossed with red onion.
Five pizzas are available for $13 to $15, either to share or as the main part of a meal for one, including a Prosciutto and Arugula choice ($15), here using the unusual San Daniele Prosciutto, a rustic version of cured ham that is aged for at least 12 months, and often for as long as two years to develop its flavor. An alternate choice, the Grilled Vegetable pizza ($14), comes to the table with a layer of the same creamy, sage-scented homemade ricotta available as antipasti.
What are called salads here, insalata, are more than a simple side salad one would normally have as a starter. They can, in fact, be meals in themselves, such as the Mediterranean-inspired Sicilian tuna salad served with white beans, arugula, olives, and eggplant ($16); radicchio draped with a honey-infused balsamic dressing, topped with pine nuts and with pancetta-wrapped chicken ($15); or Maine crab with fennel, orange, and avocado, all atop butter lettuce ($16).
Those opting for a pasta course will be hard pressed to find tomato sauce-laden dishes encased in melted mozzarella; instead, the executions, typical of Schlow’s touch, are refined, simple, and wholly lacking in artifice or culinary gimmickry. Spaghetti is offered with sweet “tiny” clams, parsley, and a fresh sauce of recently “smashed” cherry tomatoes ($18). Potato gnocchi, those ethereal, airy dumplings, poke through a topping of spicy Italian sausage and bright and fresh green peas ($17). Sacchetti (which translates to “beggar’s purse”) look like baby wontons and here are filled with Prosciutto, leeks, and crushed pistachios ($18).
Alta Strada has streamlined its menu and offers only three main courses, or Secondi, as they are referred to here: one fish offering, one poultry choice, and one beef option. These choices, as with the other menu items, are likely to change seasonally and based on customer preferences, Schlow says. Currently, diners can choose from Grilled Atlantic Salmon ($26), served with Sardinian couscous (actually fregola, a nutty, toasted version of dried semolina), fennel, and, uniquely enough, kumquats; an earthy Roasted Chicken accompanied with mushrooms, grilled red onions, and laced with sage ($23); or the Prime Butcher’s Steak ($31), served elegantly and simply with frisée, parsley, and Meyer lemons (a juicy, flavorful hybrid of a lemon and an orange).
For those who wish to linger with coffee and something sweet, the kitchen can satisfy those longings. The Apple Crostata, something between a dumpling and open face pie, has sweet caramelized apples resting on an earthy bed of fig jam ($7). Panna Cotta, the velvety, custard-like “cooked cream” specialty from the Piedmont region of Italy, is dazzlingly draped in a kumquat marmalade ($7). A dense Chocolate Hazelnut Tart (for those who must have their chocolate) is presented with a sweetened whipped ricotta cream ($8).
The large area downstairs, used as a private dining room when Figs was in operation, has been transformed into what they call the Alta Strada “Market.” Antipasti, soups, pasta dishes, sandwiches, and entrée selections, some of which do not even appear on the dining room menu upstairs, are available from $7 to $19, and can be packaged up and taken home, or enjoyed on the spot at one of the few stools.