Enjoy a slice of life at La Vita

Nachos and mussels at La Vita (Marisa Nadolny, Special to The Day)
Nachos and mussels at La Vita (Marisa Nadolny, Special to The Day)

Cross the swing bridge into East Haddam center, and a postcard view emerges. The tableau sports a gorgeous opera house overlooking the wide, wandering Connecticut River, and a classic Main Street dotted with well-kept historical buildings, shops and eateries.

One of those eateries, La Vita (formerly La Vita Gustosa), might lack the riverfront location of its popular neighbor, the Gelston House, but it offers its own charms, from its cozy hillside perch overlooking Main Street to its meandering stone patio area and sprawling interior dining rooms. Even better, the foods prepared within invite return trips to this picturesque Connecticut town.

As a gal who could easily eat pizza every day, that’s where we started with our tour of La Vita’s menu. When a pie is billed as “hand-stretched” and “artisan,” I’m in, and our Eggplant & Ricotta pizza ($15; available red or white) exceeded expectations. First, that hand stretching yields an excellent crust — crisp on the outside, slightly doughy on the inside, and just a touch of oil olive flavor; second, the chef handled the eggplant brilliantly. As far as we could tell, the eggplant was drained and sliced into thin strips, fried, then chopped into square “chips” (that’s what I called them) that THEN went into the oven alongside generous blurbs of ricotta upon a bed of mozzarella cheese. The result is two welcome layers of roast-y flavor from the oven-crisped eggplant and a toasted marshmallow effect from the ricotta. We went with red sauce, and its bright, fresh flavor lightened up the hearty load.

The menu at La Vita is, adorably, broken into sections inspired by the nearby Goodpseed Opera House. Salads are Intermission items; appetizers are Openers, etc. Spot Light items are “lighter fare.” The house Mac & Cheese ($10) falls under the Spot Light section, and while we can’t call it a light dish, we can recommend it as tasty, bountiful option for (at least) two. Large portion of farfalle aside, La Vita will top off the pasta with your choice of Buffalo chicken, pulled pork, lobster or hanger steak for a few more dollars, depending. If you add $5 for the Buffalo chicken, you’ll add a medium-spicy kick to your meal. Double bonus: the chicken was moist and tender and covered in a layer of cheese — probably mozzarella. We love a little culinary heat and found it a great complement to the dish’s Asiago cream sauce base, which was as light as a cream sauce can be.

A get-together with friends brought us to La Vita again on a recent weekend. A toast was in order, as it had been some time since we’d seen these friends, so we gamely explored the long list of house cocktails. Two of us found many tempting options, and, after much deliberation, I sipped on a Lady Kathrine martini ($11), a mix of Citadelle gin, basil, blueberry syrup, and lemon juice that was neither too sweet nor too syrupy and all delicious. My partner in crime wisely selected a cucumber Moon-Jito ($10), a cocktail special made of (Connecticut-made) Onyx Moonshine, simple syrup, mint, and soda, with five flavor choices (lavender, coconut, strawberry, blueberry and cucumber). From such a heady mix emerged a refreshing concoction that kept the sweetness in check and let the cukes do their job without overkill.

Our selection of Openers didn’t require as much debate; when mussels prepared with leeks, garlic, cherry tomatoes, bacon and white wine appear on the menu ($14), the choice is pretty much made for us. For variety’s sake, we added the Tuna Nachos ($15), and while both were delicious, the nachos edged out the mussels as best app for me. I’m still establishing my seafood palate, but this preparation of seared ahi tuna topped with avocado, ginger, wasabi aioli, scallions and sesame seeds atop thick, fresh tortilla chips certainly sounded like a home run. But a taste of the whole package, from crunchy chip to creamy aioli, affirmed just how well-crafted and balanced this dish is. It was an excellent combination of strong flavors, bright accents and satisfying textures.

As for the mussels, they were very good, but we didn’t spy too many tomato bits in the mix. After all, ‘tis the season for good tomatoes, and we would’ve loved more of them in our briny brew. Still, it was not the end of the world, because the fresh mollusks, rich broth and savory garlic-bacon flavor ensured our shell-discard plate filled up quickly. Even better, the mussels arrive with focaccia bread — all the better to really savor the wonderful broth.

As for the Main Event, I gleefully ordered the Chicken Piccata ($24) from the menu section of the same name. I view this dish as fancy comfort food, and just love what lemons and capers add to chicken. La Vita’s preparation of the lemon-caper sauce was slightly thicker than some I’ve tried, but no problem there; the sauce’s texture added a subtle bit of heartiness to the dish, and the lemon level was just right. It was also very good in those bites of the accompanying (and yummy) mashed potato that wandered into it; ditto for the properly steamed broccoli, the side veggie of the night.

My husband selected the N.Y. strip steak, one of the evening’s specials ($25; also with mashed potatoes and side veggie), for his dinner, which he ordered medium rare. When it arrived medium well, we signaled our excellent server, who quickly whisked it back to the kitchen with nearly a dozen apologies. A new steak arrived with little delay and cooked to order. But despite its festive topping of sautéed pearl onions and what we assume was a subtle marinade, the steak underwhelmed both of us. The natural flavor beef offers seemed lost in the shuffle, and the cut of the steak was on the modest side. Still, we appreciated the quick effort to make it right, which included a comped (and unsolicited) round of drinks, courtesy of the manager.

But there’s no drama here. The warm welcome, attentive service, great location, and food prepared by chefs who clearly care will ensure La Vita gets an encore visit from us.

 

If you go

La Vita 

9 Main St., East Haddam

(860) 873-8999

Lavita9main.com

Cuisine: “Inspired American” fare,” according to signage; in this case, classic steak, seafood, and chicken dishes, plus an impressive pizza menu

Atmosphere: Charming, cavernous space in the center of historic Goodspeed Landing area of East Haddam. Patio seating provides an excellent people-watching perch; indoors, ample space and seating make it easy to stay awhile. Bar area is all polished wood and brass and looks very cozy.

Service: Authentically courteous and professional

Prices: Not the cheapest date, but not a paycheck killer; a New York Strip steak on special was $25; sandwiches average around $14; pizzas start at $13.

Handicapped access: Provided, but the unique layout of the restaurant — set well above Main Street — asks a bit more of disabled patrons than many. The entrance is at the rear of the restaurant, off its very small parking lot, which is off a very narrow Main Street.

Hours: Sunday 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Tuesday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Reservations: Available

 

Credit cards: Accepted

 

 

 

 

 

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