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While L'Italia breaks no new culinary ground, it offers plenty of comforting classics.

A Taste of Old Italy

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The restaurant business is traditionally volatile. In a span of two or three years, some spaces will give birth to two or three restaurants, each passing with little notice. A few restaurants become so much a part of the familiar landscape that we take them for granted, whether we frequent them or not. For those that are among the regular patrons, these restaurants become institutions. Such is in the Canterbury Shopping Center.

Since 1972 the Diliberto family has run this Italian-American eatery and from appearances, at least three generations of the family may be working on a given evening. Once upon a time this was not particularly unusual, but more and more family-run eateries lose out to the better-financed and more efficient franchises. Another sign of inevitable change.

You won't mistake L'Italia for a slick franchised counterpart. The restaurant's three dining rooms have the patina of an institution almost 30 years old — well-cared-for but also well-worn, comfortable in an old-fashioned way, with prints of Venice and Rome to give us our bearings and a bit of Italian ambiance along with a looping tape of Italian songs.

You'll find that the menu is comfortable and old-fashioned too, and, if your tastes have moved beyond traditional tomato-based sauces, you may find some of L'Italia's "specials" more interesting.

Among the starters there are few surprises, except for what I would consider a quintessential French dish, onion soup with baked cheese and croutons. Our order of a special lentil soup was somehow translated by our server into the house onion soup and perhaps was a felicitous mistake, taking us down a culinary lane of memories. But heretofore none of them were Italian.

[image-1](Stacy Warner / richmond.com)We perhaps gave short shrift to the other regular appetizers ($2.95-$7.95) — from an antipasto plate and various assorted platters to clams on the half-shell and shrimp cocktail — to order from the "special" sheet the fried calamari ($7.95), which was probably from a prepared package, having little taste or texture of calamari. The rings might as well have been onion and had more taste. Too bad, because calamari is done so well in many places these days. It's a missed opportunity.

The salad, included with most of the entrees, is another missed opportunity. In a day when a variety of greens is available everywhere, a salad based on iceberg lettuce is another trip down memory lane. Iceberg was one of those products developed to ship without damage and to have a long shelf life. They forgot about taste in the development, though they got good texture. But it is as American as French's mustard and tomato ketchup.

If you choose pasta for an entree ($8.25-$14.50), you'll find the usual choices of spaghetti, fettuccini, and twists and turns, and the usual stuffed varieties of manicotti, cannelloni, ravioli and lasagna. Most are sauced with tomato sauce or marinara, with a few exceptions such as a creamy carbonara.

Among the other entrees ($13.25-$25.95), you'll find veal dishes of Marsala, scalloppini, parmigiana and cacciatore. There's also shrimp, chicken, flounder and lobster sautéed in cognac. We again went to the special menu, which has some interesting choices ($10.50-$18.95). Risotto Ortolana, a vegetarian concoction of several vegetables, was a happy melange. The rice, creamy with Parmesan cheese, was full of fresh vegetables of good flavor. Osso bucco almost always rings my chime, and though I consider it a winter favorite, I was pleased to find that even on a hot summer evening, this slow-cooked veal shank is not without its succulent charm. Served with rice and plenty of the braising vegetables, it was luxuriantly seductive.

Among the desserts are more old-fashioned charmers such as spumoni and tortone. A few bites of the latter were enough to send me on another trip to places where I have been.

L'Italia is not about what's trendy and hot, but what has been and continues to be. Many take comfort in that. Viva

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