Strip-Mall Chic 

Nostrana Can't Hide From Its Roots

Over the past year or so, the empty retail space across from Crush has transformed from the decrepit former home of discount grocery store Suebee's to a shiny-windowed commercial palace that would perfectly fit in right next to Urban Outfitters on NW 23rd. I've been watching closely to see what the hell would sprout up in there, and if it would disrupt the otherwise still-pretty-indie vibe of my beloved SE 'hood. Well, the first tenant has finally arrived, and though Pizzeria Nostrana is not part of some corporate restaurant chain, as I feared, it still kind of feels like it is.

Nonetheless, packed to the gills on a Tuesday night with the adult-contemporary set, Nostrana is undoubtedly filling a niche. Like Macaroni Grill, Pastini, and other Italian-themed joints that hide their industry sheen under a cover of gently flickering ambience, it offers the Subaru Outback drivers cuisine that's a little different, but still comforting. Nostrana has extremely high ceilings, cubbyholes containing wine bottles and other artifacts, and overall resembles a display window you might see at Pier 1 Imports. I wouldn't hang out there again, though the bartender from Denver was very nice, and the menu had some commendable options.

With its imported wood-burning pizza oven chugging away in the open kitchen, Nostrana makes Italian-style pizzas with thin, floppy crusts and an almost soupy medley of sauce and cheese. Ours was the traditional Margherita (coated in a tomato and basil sauce), spiced up with some mozzarella di bufala (yup, that's made with buffalo milk—rich and buttery!), and plenty of fresh arugula, whose vibrant greenness shone through the restaurant's dim glow. The textural combination of goopy dough with crisp, crunchy greens was tantalizing, and we gobbled up every last crumb. Other pizza options include a Pescatore with clams and mussels, and a divine-sounding Funghi with fresh chanterelles, house-made pancetta, and fontina Val d'Aosta (a delicately earthy Italian cheese with traces of nuts and honey).

To prep for our succulent pizza entrée, we lined our stomachs with an Antipasti Misti plate covered with eye-pleasing piles of marinated fried pumpkin, a fairly unique greens marmalade, roasted veggies with marjoram and garlic, and "irresistible crostini" coated with a delectable olive/garlic pate that filled the cracks in our teeth like mortar of the gods. The pumpkin, too, was stellar: a perfectly seasoned autumn vegetable that was cooked thoroughly without being too mushy. Unfortunately, the Mista Insalate that accompanied this delightful plate was pathetic, a huge mixing bowl full of limp lettuce, raw onions, and over-roasted hunks of beet. I could have made the same thing at home in mere minutes.

But a few flubs aside, the food at Nostrana is not a problem. It's well prepared, chock full of quality, made with locally bought ingredients, and reasonably priced, especially if you split a pizza, which you can easily do and still be plenty full. But the vibe of the place is a bit of a drag; its attempts to be both intimate and chic are somehow at odds with its fake-wood-kitchen paneling and glossy countertops. Maybe I just don't like brand-new things (vintage is where it's at, no?). Or maybe I don't like strip-mall businesses, especially ones trying to front like they aren't.

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