I used to live in a town with a three-story restaurant that I was impressed managed to have such a different atmosphere on every floor. There was a boisterous brewery first-come-first-served area on the first floor, an intimately quiet dinner date-style seating area on the second, and an open patio with a bar on the third that was a little bit between them, part sweet and whimsical with a view of the river and partly a nice area where you could talk loudly without contributing to an indoor roar. All things to all people, but nicely achieved (though I think the servers had some serious stair-climbing to do!).
Head up the stairs to the outdoor patio, and you’ll pass jovial bartenders on the top story and enjoy the same combination atmosphere that rooftop lounges can enjoy: casual, but also an unforgettable view that is perfect for a date night.
This restaurant came to mind when I first visited Strada and Social Lounge on a food tour a few years ago. When you walk into the Strada side of the restaurant, you get a calm, stately, old-world decor with attentive waitstaff, lots of dark wood and burgundy, and low light. Step into Social Lounge, and you get a more art-deco speakeasy vibe, with a tighter seating plan and a generally “hip” feeling.
Having three spaces really adds to the options for both people who are planning ahead and for walk-ins. For instance, their reservation website specifies where in the restaurant you’ll be seated for a given reservation, so you can specifically earmark a table on the beautiful patio area if that’s what floats your boat.
They have extensive warnings about how extreme weather might preclude you from eating comfortably on the patio. There might not be another table inside in that case, but as long as you heed all the disclaimers, you can really customize your plan.
At the same time, having multiple spaces means that, if they have the staffing and the space, Strada also takes walk-ins – I actually mangled my own reservation the last time I was there, but by showing up early in the dinner service, they had space for us.
If your heart is set on Strada, your best bet is a reservation, but with so many spaces, there’s a good chance of getting in even on a busy night if you’re willing to wait for bar seating or aren’t picky about where in the restaurant you sit.
Strada means “street,” but as the website advertises, Strada is also a traditional, family-owned Italian restaurant in Asheville. While I feel like the idea of a date night at a charming Italian restaurant is right out of a movie script, I have had the chance to stop by here a few times over the years and have never been disappointed.
The restaurant has quite a lot going for it, service-wise. In an industry that has been chronically understaffed for years, they have won awards for excellent front-of-house service. I noticed an above-average warmth from every member of the staff that I encountered – when we mentioned wanting to wander up and see the outdoor patio, our server offered to walk us up there herself so that we wouldn’t get too turned around.
On our food tour a couple years ago, I got to try their ravioli, and the memory was a big part of what brought me back over time. Each spinach and ricotta-filled ravioli is grilled, of all things, giving it a firm and flavorful texture.
It’s then served on arugula with a killer combination of tomato cream sauce, balsamic reduction, and pecorino romano – all the combinations of vinegary and tomato-ey brightness with cream and cheese richness creates a memorable pasta experience even for a girl who makes and eats pasta frequently.
That’s what I’m looking for at an Italian restaurant, ultimately: they can offer me the perfect textured pizza crust, the top-notch saucing, and the al dente homemade pasta delights that are just a little more clumsily done when I personally prepare them at home.
I love a restaurant and a cuisine that celebrates cheese – while I totally understand that not every culture makes a big deal of cheese and there’s too much of a good thing sometimes, this ingredient might be my favorite one when put to thoughtful use. Microplaning a cloud of fluffy parmesan onto a white bean and onion soup or browning some mozzarella on a casserole? Sign me up.
I’m a big fan of choosing restaurant dishes that involve some kind of cooking apparatus or technique I can’t replicate at home. In this case, it’s a deep fryer and the ability to not have pan-fried items go to bits (I’m not great at frying) – the arancini appetizer is my go-to for this reason.
Arancini is a ball of risotto and cheese, covered in some delectable breadcrumbs or other coating and deep-fried to crispy perfection on the outside, with a gloriously gooey center. The whole thing can be enjoyed with that same tomato cream sauce and balsamic reduction combo, and while I could probably stand to divert from the theme, I do love that combo.
The appetizer menu is full of more sumptuous options, though: from the goat-cheese-stuffed Calimyrna figs that are then wrapped in paper-thin Prosciutto to the mussels cooked in garlic white wine sauce, you have a lot of options even before you hit the main menu.
On an evening when I wasn’t particularly peckish, I focused in on the salad and soup menus for some lighter fare, settling on a flavorful soup called the Tuscan Formaggio, a take on onion soup made with beef broth, crostini, and provolone, and got some of the warm and soft garlic ciabatta to dip in it. The soup is very cheesy and salty, just the thing when you’re coming in to warm up and feel cozy.
If you’ve wanted some fancy pizza with an excellent crust, the options on Strada’s pizza menu are excellent. From The Ranford, an all-vegan concoction with vegan cheese, tons of vegetables, and Beyond meatballs for a great flavor that will fill you right up to the Papa Fred, loaded with salami, spicy Italian sausage, cherry peppers, grape tomatoes, herb ricotta, and mozzarella, there’s something to suit all tastes.
My favorite is a sweet twist on pizza, the Fig & Goat Cheese. Adding some prosciutto and a roasted garlic oil base, this hand-tossed creation has fresh basil and mozzarella that keeps it in the flavor wheelhouse of a pizza, but the sweet figs marinated in limoncello bring a totally new flavor profile to the table. It’s also good for breakfast the next day, since our eyes are always bigger than our stomachs and we tend to take pizza home from Strada.
I haven’t personally tried the many delicious entrees beyond the pizza and pasta menu, but you can choose from steak, duck, salmon, chicken, and more, all lovingly paired with Italian-inspired herbs, sauces, and sides.
In addition to my beloved Grilled Florentine Ravioli, I am intrigued by the Spaghetti Burrata that serves the flavorful, creamy mozzarella ball and basil pesto on top of housemade spaghetti. From eyeing my neighbors’ plates, I learned that the Shrimp Pappardelle, Short Rib Bolognese, and Vegan Lasagna all look and smell absolutely incredible. There’s not a bad dish, it would seem.
Finally, while I’ve always been too full to try it, one of my long-term goals is to make it to one of Strada’s delicious-looking cannoli or other desserts with enough appetite to enjoy it. Desserts from Italy are delectable, so consider this mission added to my Asheville bucket list.
One factor that I’m sure is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it is the commitment to avoiding allergens – it’s clear on the menu, but you’ll notice it even more if you’re particularly looking for the vegan, gluten-free, or allergen-aware dishes.
The service staff can reassure anyone with Celiac or wheat allergies of the precautions taken: since many severe allergies need dedicated cookware, such as special pans for gluten-free pizzas, Strada has a plan in place to help reassure people of the safety of their food.
On the website findmeglutenfree.com multiple people talk about what a nice time they had and how delicious the foods like the gluten-free focaccia were, all without causing a reaction. If you are personally a gluten and dairy lover but want someone who doesn’t eat those items to also enjoy themselves, you have a great option in Strada.
All in all, Strada transcends a standard Italian meal in a lot of ways – it’s in the heart of downtown Asheville, has multiple atmospheric dining areas, offers a lot of customization options for dietary needs, and has outstanding hospitality so that your experience will be over-the-top lovely.
I enjoy virtually every meal I have that is influenced by Italian cuisine choices, so these additions are just the perfect dollop of burrata on top of an already delicious dinner. Make it a point to visit if you’re a fan of Italian flavors.
Strada and Social Lounge: 27 Broadway St, Asheville