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Old Saybrook's La Marea raises the bar on Italian

Tucked along a nondescript stretch of Route 154 sits Old Saybrook's latest culinary gem, La Marea. This Italian restaurant, in that spot that straddles the line between Essex and Saybrook, right off Route 9, took over a long abandoned former restaurant building and launched a hot spot that's serving some of the best fare I've tasted in some time.

I realize a "hot spot" in Old Saybrook is a relative term, but when the parking lot is three-quarters full at 5:25 p.m. at a place that opens for dinner at 5, you know you're onto something, especially considering the location. On that day I was grabbing some takeout, a feat in itself, since, a few days earlier, I'd phoned in a request for takeout and was told it would be at least 90 minutes to get my order together; the dining room was very busy that night, the hostess explained. Too hungry to wait that long, I declined and put off Tasting #1 a few days and phoned in my order minutes after dinner service began.

Apparently I'll need to strategically phone in my takeout orders going forward, because the Pizza Margherita ($15, one size) and Insalate Tricolore ($13) we enjoyed for dinner were wonderful. There are about seven other pizza options available alongside La Marea's pasta and "Secondi" entrees, but faithful readers will know I'm a sucker for a cheese pizza — particularly an upscale one. La Marea's margherita pie keeps it beautifully basic: take buffalo mozzarella, basil and fresh tomato sauce and place atop dough; bake in oven hotter than Lucifer's living room; enjoy. Each part of the pizza was outstanding: the basil delivered a pungent green blast; the cheese was fresh and creamy (some fresh mozz can be a bore in the wrong hands); and the tomatoes, bright and tangy, sang of summertime. However, the crust edged out the rest for Pizza MVP. When a dough renders a baked crust that is soft, crispy and lightly moist with olive oil, that, my friends, is expert preparation and a flavorful base for greatness.

Our tricolor salad, a mix of radicchio, Belgian endives, bib lettuce, red onion and big, thick Parmesan cheese shavings, proved a tasty and certainly colorful counterpart to the pizza. Its accompanying rosemary balsamic vinaigrette unified the more bitter of the greens and tangy cheese in the most perfect way, creating a sum greater than the parts. Our only beef with the salad, if you will, was its skimpy size. Two of us had a decent amount each, but for $13 we both expected (and, after tasting it, wanted) more.

Wise to La Marea's popularity, we made a dinner reservation for Tasting #2 and were glad we did, because the place was hopping once again. To toast our wisdom we ordered up a few cocktails: mine a Lavender Collins — Broker's (dry) Gin, Wild Moon Lavender liquor, and splashes of lemon and club soda — and his a Sazerac (both $9). I can heartily recommend mine, which kept the lavender in check with the smart dash of lemon spritz and did not taste overly boozy. I'm not huge on bourbon drinks but I can pass along my husband's stamp of approval on his Sazerac, which came nicely presented in proper drinkware with a twist of orange.

One could easily dine on La Marea's appetizers and leave sated; indeed, the busy bar area of the restaurant becomes very tempting if one is looking for light nosh and a glass of wine (there's an extensive list). We can recommend both apps we tried, but must note we wanted to try at least two others on the Antipasti menu.

Now, the Timballo di Buffalo e Verdure alle Griglia ($14) looks petite at first glance, but that timballo is densely built with layers of buffalo mozzarella and alternating sliced marinated grilled vegetables, including zucchini, tomato and eggplant. Once again, a balsamic glaze, drizzled artfully on the plate, united all flavors and made a unique, refreshing, filling dish. One note: our timballo came out almost icy cold. Cheeses are best when they've had some time to warm up after they've spent time in the fridge. We gave the dish some time to come closer to room-ish temp and it realized its full flavor potential.

We have no caveats for the Parmigiana di Melanzane ($13). Just order it and enjoy this excellent expression of eggplant, which is lightly fried, sliced, baked and layered with mozzarella and grated Parmigiano cheese, and topped with that fabulous tomato sauce. It is bright, savory and satisfying.

Pleased as we were with our app choices, our entrees secured a return visit to La Marea. I opted for the pasta special of the day: half rigatoni with lamb ragu ($22). Yes: lamb ragu, and it was spectacularly delicious. I expected ground lamb to turn up in the sauce, but mixed amid the perfectly al dente rigatoni was chopped, tender lamb meat, expertly simmered with tomatoes and magic. Keep an eye out for this wonderful entrée, which was large enough to send us home with leftovers.

Now, one wouldn't expect to encounter one of the best steaks of one's life at an Italian restaurant, but La Marea appears to be in the business of breaking expectations, because our second entrée, Bistecca alla Griglia alle erbe ($33) is in our top five. This dish pairs a grilled New York strip steak bathed in "wild herbs," red vinegar and roasted garlic sauce and served with two potato croquettes and the veggie of the day, asparagus. Ordered and delivered medium-rare, the seasonal herbs and vinegar plus light grill flavor transformed a staid, hearty dish like steak into a springtime no brainer. I suspect the vinegar contributed to the amazing tenderness of the steak as well. The perfectly prepared asparagus added to the vernal theme, but I'd suggest a rethink on the croquettes which, though well prepared, were a bit bland.

Still, I won't quibble much over that, because we thoroughly enjoyed every other aspect of our dinners and look forward to tastings #3, #4 and #5. After all, there is a dessert menu to explore ...

If you go: La Marea

La Marea

732 Middlesex Turnpike, Old Saybrook

(860) 391-8614

www.lamareact.com

Cuisine: Upscale Italian

Atmosphere: Exposed trusses add modern edge to beach house chic décor; spacious and airy; bar area, with booths, offers a more casual dining option

Service: Attentive but possibly stretched thin; we were delayed by a billing snafu in which our card was run against someone else's bill

Prices: Not cheap; pasta entrees range from $20 to $26; other entrees start at $25; appetizers average around $15

Hours: Lunch, Wednesday through Saturday, noon-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Sunday, 4-9 p.m.

Handicap access: Smooth ramp to front door from parking lot; spacious interior

Reservations: Yes

Credit cards: Accepted

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