Take that short drive to Stratto’s

Jerome Pope
Jerome Pope is now the chef at Stratto’s in Clarksville. Look for his new menu after the first of the year. LEO Photo by Nicole Pullen.

LEO’s Eats with Louisville HotBytes

If you’ve been meaning to check out some Southern Indiana dining spots but worried that it’s a little too far, consider this: It took me just 11 minutes to drive from my house in Crescent Hill to Stratto’s in Clarksville on a rainy Saturday night.

OK, maybe I couldn’t have made it that fast during a weekday rush hour, but it’s still a quicker trip for me than a ride out to The Summit or Brownsboro Crossing in endless suburbia.

What’s more, the comfortable historic-house setting and hearty Italian-accented comfort food at Stratto’s makes it well worth the short trip across the finally repainted Kennedy Bridge.

The venue may rank among the metro’s most attractive: Montrose, a sturdy Indiana mansion, was built by the McCulloch family around 1870. With its surrounding grove, it’s one of the few historic buildings left along Clarksville’s aggressively commercial Lewis and Clark Parkway.

Restored in the 1990s as the Major McCulloch Steakhouse, it later became Sunset Grill, then Stratto’s; the recent arrival of Chef Jerome Pope from Louisville’s Coach Lamp marks Stratto’s third chef since it opened in the spring of 2006. In spite of all the changes, it has maintained a consistent style, with a bill of fare that’s upscale but comfortably so, putting a light immigrant-Italian spin on hearty down-home dishes.

(After New Year’s, I’m told that Chef Pope plans some menu changes. Popular favorites are likely to remain, but I expect we’ll see some de-emphasis of the Italian theme.)

The current menu offers a broad, fairly priced selection with few main dishes over $20. A good assortment of about a dozen appetizers ranges in price from $4 (for tomato-artichoke soup or the soup of the day) to $9 (for crispy calamari). Mozzarella-topped bruschetta toasts or fried Italian rice balls (“arancini”) are $6, and crab cakes are $8.

On the lighter side, a half-dozen panini (sandwiches) and pasta courses are mostly in the neighborhood of $8 (for a half-pound cheeseburger or chicken melt or a plate of spaghetti with marinara sauce) or $9 (for fried fish, in Italian disguise as pescado al fritte, or a hearty slab of lasagna made with both Italian sausage and ground beef). Small pizzas, enough for a main course for one or appetizer for two or more, are $9 for a pie with your choice of sauce, one meat, three other toppings and mozzarella.

Main courses are $15 (for grilled pork chops or roasted Italian meatloaf) to $22 (for beef medallions topped with Italian Gorgonzola blue cheese).

Full bar service includes a wine list with about 30 selections, few of them exciting to wine “geeks.” It’s mostly mass-market stuff from Bolla and Gallo and their kin, fine for washing down food, with markup on the high side, well over double the prices you’ll pay at retail wine shops.

I liked the list a little better in Stratto’s original incarnation, when it was mostly affordable Italian wines with some artisan options, but I expect we’re seeing the hand of market forces at work here. Still, just about all the wines are sold by the glass for less than one-fourth of the bottle price, making it easy to choose a white with your appetizer and follow up with a red for the main course.

Our party of four enjoyed friendly and competent service, although a few overly casual touches such as leaving used utensils on the table for re-use with the next course seemed a little out of synch with the upscale look and feel of Stratto’s.

We settled into our comfortable chairs around heavy, undraped shiny wooden tables in an intimate dining room with cafe-au-lait walls and shiny white trim and enjoyed individual-size herb loaves, still warm from the oven, with peppered olive oil on small plates for dipping.

A couple of appetizers shared around the table got things off to a rousing start. Crispy Calamari ($9) comes with a fair-warning menu note that a ration includes both the tube parts (innocuous little rings) and tentacles (alarming to the uninitiated). It’s an excellent rendition, right up there with the fried squid at Porcini, my benchmark for Italian-style calamari. A generous portion was well prepared, lightly battered with a spicy breading and fried crisp, mixed in with strips of sauteed red, green and yellow bell pepper. It comes with both a chunky, spicy marinara and a glistening Pacific Rim-style chili sauce for dipping.

Garlic and herb arancini ($6), a Sicilian-style treat, consisted of a half-dozen golf-ball-size rounds of cheesy risotto laced with a whack of cayenne, breaded and fried golden-brown and delicious, plated on a dab of “coulis” that resembled a lighter version of the marinara.

Salads, which come with entrees, are served on clear glass plates. Caesars were basic but well-made: crisp romaine and fresh herbed croutons tossed in a light, garlicky dressing. The house salad is a good one, too, fresh mixed lettuces, tomato dice and croutons and a tangy-sweet ranch-type dressing.

Veal saltimbocca ($19) was tasty but well removed from any authentic interpretation of this Roman classic. Two thin veal cutlets resembling cube steak were given a chicken-fried treatment and served atop fettuccine in a light Alfredo-style sauce, garnished with crunchy bits of ham and a pungent shake of dried sage.

A sausage-topped pizza ($9) was built on a thick, rather soft grilled crust pulled into a rectangular shape, loaded with light tomato sauce and a lot of mozzarella, topped with thick slices of mild sausage.

Sirloin braciola ($17), a stylish concept, consisted of beef sirloin pounded thin and rolled around peeled shrimp and asparagus spears, braised and then cut into thick rounds. The flavor combination was excellent, but the meat seemed a bit dry in spite of the accompanying “roasted yellow pepper-saffron sauce.”

My choice, roasted Italian meatloaf ($15), brought together Southern Indiana and Southern Italy in fine “fusion” style: A thick slice of meaty, juicy American-style beef-and-veal meatloaf was turned Italian-American with toppings of thick, spicy marinara sauce and a blanket of melted Parmigiana cheese.

Both entrees were accompanied by rich, creamy yet appropriately rough-textured smashed potatoes and a forgettable grilled-vegetable medley of zucchini and summer squash, carrot slices and red onions.

The hit of the dessert menu was chocolate lava cake ($5), a hefty round the size of a hockey puck, crisp chocolate crust around a dense, gooey sweet hot pudding-like center; it was plated on a pool of white cream with chocolate stripes. It was billed as amaretto chocolate, but any almond flavor was AWOL for me. It doesn’t need it.

Italian cream cake ($5) boasted a good flavor of coconut and spice, but the cake was dense and rather dry. The rich, creamy icing more than makes up for it, though.

Cannoli ($2) was just fine, and the best bargain on the dessert menu. A crisp fried pastry tube was over-stuffed with a thick, sweet-tangy mix of creamy ricotta and sweet mascarpone cheeses; the ends were dipped in chopped pistachios (or, if you prefer, tiny chocolate chips or powdered sugar). It’s an authentic Sicilian pastry, and a favorite for me.

A decent dinner for four in a pleasant setting, with four glasses of wine and fresh, hot Consumer’s Choice coffee, came to an entirely reasonable $129.32 plus a $30 tip. The share for two would have been about $65 plus tip.

Stratto’s Restaurant
318 W. Lewis and Clark Pkwy.
Clarksville, Ind.
(812) 945-3496
Robin Garr’s rating: 78