Tell people you're going to Al di La for dinner and you'll likely get a sentimental response. It might be an "awww!" or an "oh, nice." But where that sentiment comes from exactly is harder to say. Are they drawn to its charming, commercial side street in West Ashley, a welcome respite along busy Highway 17? Do they nostalgically remember a time when Al di La was the only good restaurant in the neighborhood? Do they love its cozy candlelit tables, fun bar, or romantic atmosphere?
John Marshall opened Al di La in October 2002 "in a marginal neighborhood across the street from a broken-down gas station on Magnolia Road in West Ashley" (his words). Marshall was good to his employees, trained his chefs well (a couple started places of their own), and offered some of the only high-quality, reasonably priced food off the peninsula. (He had spent the past few years working in teeny trattorias in Italy, from Tuscany north.) Then in 2007, a little worried about where the neighborhood was going, Marshall sold Al di La to trusted employee Mark Kohn and traded West Ashley for a North Carolina farm (Marshall is back now and opening a Mexican-inspired restaurant in North Charleston soon). Mark and his wife Gillian still live in the neighborhood and are passionate about what they do: "It's like having a second child," Gillian says.
So how are things at Al di La three years on?
It's still charming and cozy for sure. It's basically divided in two — on one side a deep and inviting bar, framed in the back with a wood-burning oven, and on the other a moderately-sized and subdued dining room with white-clothed bistro tables and a long chalkboard marked up with wine specials and a rotating Italian phrase. Much of the place is in black, from the floor to the tiled bar to the ceiling and trim, to the staff's garb. You might call it alternative elegant.
At lunch the menu is simple, geared toward quick-made dishes to free up the stove for dinner prep: a few soups (around $5), salads (around $7), a handful of panini (around $8), pizzette from the wood oven (around $8), and pasta (around $12). All are adorned with thoughtful Italian ingredient combinations that balance taste and flavor: prosciutto, mozzarella, and arugula; pork loin, fontina, and red onion marmelata; pancetta, spring onion, and tomato, to name a few. Dinner is what Al di La focuses on, and the menu changes more frequently. There are primi like tagliatelle with duck confit, porcini mushrooms, and truffle oil ($13.50) and the signature ricotta and mascarpone gnocchi with shrimp, grape tomatoes, and basil ($11/$15). The pillowy dumplings cushion plump fresh shrimp alongside shreds of basil and bursting, tart cherry tomatoes.
The humble house salad is well done too: a healthy mound of mixed greens, grape tomatoes, shaved red onion, thinly sliced cucumber, and shaved carrots, all drizzled with a tart, citrusy, and creamy red wine vinaigrette ($6). It's a nice contrast to what came after on a recent lunch visit: a warm casserole dish of al dente bow-tie farfalle baked with a restrained amount of not-too-thick béchamel, shards of sausage, and a touch of arugula; it's very well done at around $12. (I'd say it was light on the sausage and arugula but that's my quirk — they'd do it Al di La's way in Italy where pasta's more about the noodle itself than the condiment.)
On a couple of recent visits, the arugula and beet salad with goat cheese and orange segments ($8.50) was a mixed bag. The first time around it was burdened by clearly wilted arugula and bites of grit — a common but avoidable downfall with arugula, which clings to sandy soil and needs to be washed accordingly (and not served if wilted). But on another visit I checked back in with the same salad, and the arugula was as pristine as can be, delicately dressed and perky, a pleasure to eat down to the last tangy dollop of goat cheese and earthy sweet beet.
Heartened, I followed the revived salad with the gnocchi Bolognese, expecting it to be as good as the farfalle I'd had before and the signature gnocchi dish. At first it seemed beautifully fragrant and hearty, with soft spongy gnocchi nestled in parsley-flecked Bolognese. The outside was as piping hot as the gratin dish it came in (which the server had warned me about). But deeper inside the temperature dwindled, and in the middle it was barely warm and muted in flavor. Not a tragic mistake but one that a quick temperature check and a couple more minutes in the oven would have prevented.
Luckily, additional visits to Al di La yielded plenty of really good food. Both the shepherd's salad with mixed greens, Ubriaco cheese, Genoa salami, and a smart addition of grapes and walnuts ($7.25) and the insalata della casa ($6) of mixed greens, grape tomatoes, red onion, cucumber, and carrots with an unctuous and tart red wine vinaigrette were right on. And a dinner dish of braised beef short rib with tomatoes, red wine, and fresh herbs was exceptional. The tender short rib is set on hearty corn polenta that's sprinkled with a handful of fresh-shucked corn, alongside a bundle of bright green blanched green beans, lightly cooked kale, and a few still-sizzling roasted cherry tomatoes. The fresh corn sprinkled over the polenta was a smart textural stroke, and the fresh, almost unadorned greens were a bright contrast to the bold, rich braise.
From what I can tell, Al di La remains an endearing neighborhood spot and is as good as any restaurant in its price range in Charleston. They just have to remember to keep their eye on the details.