You've seen them around town. On Pratt Street, in the heart of Towson, on the Avenue in White Marsh. Strapazza restaurants are turning up everywhere. But, unlike a plate of linguine in which every strand resembles the next, these informal Italian cafes are owned by different members of the Coppola family, and each has its own distinct personality.
Rafael Coppola, part owner and operator of the Strapazza in Cockeysville, may hold claim to the restaurant in the least glitzy location. His Strapazza is in a down-on-its-luck shopping center. Inside, though, the mood is considerably brighter, with the tinkling sound of arcing water coming from the centerpiece fountain and the muted hues of blue and green evoking the serenity of the Mediterranean.
The back panel of the menu reads like a travel brochure for Naples, where singing "fills the neighborhood piazzas at night." That's a bit more romantic than the experience you're apt to have at this Strapazza, which serves the kind of southern Italian pasta dishes and pizza that are typical of neighborhood Italian restaurants in this country.
But a good pizza is worth seeking out, and you'll find it here made on a thin crust, with an excellent, balanced marinara and a blend of sharp and mild cheeses.
The light-tasting angel hair Boscaiola gets high marks, too. The thin strands of pasta were tossed in marinara sauce with sauteed spinach, artichoke hearts, chunks of broccoli and sliced button mushrooms. Even with all those vegetables, the pasta didn't get weighed down, as sometimes happens with angel hair.
It was hard to believe that the same kitchen turned out the greasiest dish of fettuccine Bolognese we've ever set fork to -- dressed with an oily sauce of ground beef instead of the savory tomato and meat ragu we anticipated.
We ordered the dish because it was made with Strapazza's homemade fettuccine -- thin, golden-colored pasta that deserved better treatment. One of the seafood sauces that Coppola later described to me, such as the shrimp primavera in pink cream, would have been ideal.
Chicken Valdostana fell somewhere in between the wonderful angel hair and the unctuous fettuccine. Tender boneless chicken breasts were topped with a thin shaving of prosciutto and mozzarella. They were resting on a bed of spaghetti in a mushroom and white wine sauce, flavored with a spoon of marinara and a little too much oil.
We had better luck with our appetizers -- an enormous plate of crispy fried calamari, and a garlic-topped mozzarella and tomato salad, made with thick, creamy slices of the cheese. The only thing missing was fresh basil.
A bowl of piping-hot minestrone was closer to canned than homemade, though, and the Greek salad seemed little more than a small plate of iceberg lettuce with a smattering of cucumbers, onions and feta cheese.
Outside of the salad, everything else was served in generous portions, delivered by our young, fresh-scrubbed waitress, who made up in efficiency and friendliness what she lacked in menu finesse. When we asked her if any desserts were baked in-house, she said, "No, we take them out of a box."
That's just about how they tasted, too.
35 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa,
Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$6.50; entrees, $5.50-$13.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 7/09/98