183 Shrewsbury Street, Worcester
By Bernie Whitmore
Every now and then a business goes through such fundamental transformation that I best liken it to the result of a nuclear detonation; every surface, every bit of the old culture has been blasted away and replaced with something completely new.
La Scala has enjoyed such a change. To its previous incarnation I had made just one visit for dinner. With barely a foot through the doorway I stopped dead and looked around. Regular customers may have felt at home, but to a newcomer the surroundings were not at all welcoming or enticing.
It couldn’t be more different now. The ill-conceived drop ceiling has been ripped out, exposing brickwork and the original tin ceiling which has been painted teal. The lower walls are painted soft gold, giving the room a more spacious feel. My friend and I were seated at one of the curvy corner booths and soon Sabrina, our waitress, arrived to greet us. Her enthusiasm for the new La Scala was boundless as she described all the changes.
Of course, a bucket of fresh paint can’t cover up a weak kitchen, so we turned our attention to the menu. It’s divided into sections standard to Italian restaurants, each with a narrow offering that promised to avoid the pitfalls of kitchen over-reach. Though the offering may be brief, it covers most of the basics along with imaginative items such as Arugula Strawberry Insalata. A group of La Scala Signature Items gives David DiStefano, La Scala’s chef, room to get creative.
In choosing our appetizer I reluctantly agreed to Fried Calamari. A one-time favorite, this dish has become a risk; all too often it’s over-fried or drenched in scorched oil. But La Scala has single-handedly reversed this trend. Their generous portion of rings and tentacles was lightly fried and then tossed in fresh olive oil with bits of garlic, diced tomato and cherry pepper chips. Yes, that’s a lot of competing flavor, but happily it didn’t overpower the delicate seafood.
La Scala’s wine list is well-stocked with moderately priced selections. I chose a glass of Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa. It didn’t have the complexity of SBs from New Zealand, but its crisp citrus flavor went well with the calamari.
Even though it’s from the standard menu, my friend’s entrée selection, Seafood Fra Diavolo, should get its own page because this dish epitomizes La Scala’s focus on robust flavor, freshness of ingredients, and value. Sabrina had warned us that it was large, but “colossal” might better describe this dish. Somewhere at the bottom of a tower of seafood was a foundation of linguine. Large juicy shrimp joined dozens of fresh mussels and clams for a drenching in a zesty marinara of hot peppers, plum tomatoes and onion; everything was then crowned with a layer of light-golden fried calamari. This meal is so large that the manager will award anyone able to finish it a commemorative t-shirt!
The drama of size and all those gorgeous shells is fine, but what really matters, of course, is flavor. And this is where the chef had a few delicious surprises in store. Part of the Diavolo-burn was achieved with chunks of hot sausage. But he also made it smolder with the smoky flavor of linguica sausage. This was the best Fra Diavolo variation I’ve encountered ~ not too spicy with a rich depth of flavor.
I chose one of La Scala’s signature entrees, Chicken La Scala. Layers of breaded chicken breast and eggplant were baked in tomato sauce topped with slices of fresh mozzarella cheese and served with linguine. It was served so steaming-hot from the oven that the mozzarella stretched across the table with every forkful. Compared to Fra Diavolo, this seemed a mere mortal in size, yet it was too large to finish; the leftovers I returned home with were enough for another meal.
La Scala has every right to be proud of what they’ve accomplished this year, from the gleam of new furniture to impressive culinary feats from their kitchen. They’ve certainly extended the winning streak of the Shrewsbury Street dining district!