Those lucky enough to have savored pasta on Italian soil will vouch for its superiority. But what makes it so transcendent there? The wheat? The water? The air?
Many Americans have struggled to replicate that al dente genius stateside, including Al Di La’s founding chef, John Marshall, who spent time in Italy learning technique before opening the West Ashley favorite in 2002. Literally, the expression “al di la” translates to “beyond,” or in Southern terms, “over yonder.” (Italians use the phrase to reference heaven, the great beyond.) In any case, Al Di La blazed a culinary trail, leading the transformation of Avondale from a once-sleepy, industrial intersection peppered with tire stores and vacant gas stations to a popular dining and drinking destination just four miles outside downtown Charleston.
Since Marshall’s departure in 2008, Al Di La has changed hands twice. Now, for the first time in its history, it’s owned and operated by Italians.
Giuseppe Mola and Fabio Zedda met in New York’s high-paced food-and-beverage industry but longed to forego the city’s rat race and freezing winters. After vacationing here in Charleston, Mola found our sunshine, hospitality, and waterways reminiscent of his native Puglia (the heel of Italy’s boot), where he grew up catching octopus with his buddies and cranking the pasta machine in his mother’s kitchen every Sunday after church. When he saw Al Di La for sale, Mola convinced Zedda, a native of Sardinia, to partner with him, and the two moved with their respective families.
What this means for diners is two-fold. On one hand, Al Di La’s chef, Ben Anderson, still helms the kitchen despite the change in ownership, so you can expect some constants. On the other, you’ve got the added know-how of two Italian natives looking over Anderson’s shoulder, instructing him to add a pinch of sugar to the Bolognese, to swap out the 12-month Grana Padano for a 24-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano, and to use Zedda’s grandmother’s secret recipe for espresso-infused tiramisu.
Al Di La doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, nor does its menu ramble on for pages. What it offers, it executes well. Service can, at times, take on a languid pace, but that’s fine if you’re enjoying a crisp Umbrian white or cooling your heels on the outdoor patio.
By night, strings of colored bulbs cast a festive glow under a canopy of live oaks. Order a mineral-forward glass of volcanic Etna Rosso, and pair it with an antipasto of beef carpaccio. Translucent veils of thinly shaved Wagyu come dotted with capers (fried crispy to mellow the brine) and flecks of smoked sea salt. Fork the beef onto slices of crunchy baguette, then top each bite with arugula leaves tossed in lemony olive oil.
You could stop there, and you’d be happy. But most come here for multi-staged dinners. Plump mussels swim in a garlicky white-wine charred-tomato broth. Springy ribbons of tagliatelle interlace with shreds of duck confit, quartered cremini mushrooms, and an earthy hint of truffle oil. Gnocchi marries well with sweet shrimp, basil, and blistered tomatoes (a carry-over from Marshall’s reign).
While previous owners offered dinner only, you can now grab a lunchtime panini with a thick slab of grilled Italian sausage and roasted peppers. Mola will steer you away from caprese in sandwich form (though he does offer it), insisting that Al Di La’s fresh, hand-pulled mozzarella is best enjoyed in a salad, drizzled with syrupy aged balsamic. He’s right.
The transition to new ownership hasn’t been without some hiccups. When Mola and Zedda eighty-sixed chicken Parmesan (news flash: not an authentic Italian dish) and replaced it with traditional eggplant parmigiana, some regulars cried foul. Not wishing to lose customers, they put the pan-fried chicken back on the menu.
There are occasional diners who will send back a plate of al dente spaghetti carbonara, claiming the pasta is too chewy. Surely this perplexes and exasperates Mola, who grew up watching his mother keep a hawk-eye on boiling pasta, then whisk it off the stove at the right moment to shock it in an ice bath, an Italian wisdom that rescues pasta from the fate of watery mushiness.
Given that Signora Mola visits frequently from Italy and dines in her son’s restaurant, you can rest assured Al Di La’s pasta is cooked just right.
The draw: Perfectly cooked pasta plus an international wine list
The drawback: The dining room gets loud when full.
Don’t miss: Beef carpaccio