Big portions, generous specials, and daring flavor are the bread and butter of Strings Café, a small Italian restaurant along San Pablo Avenue.
The restaurant is ambitious in its offerings, but there appears to be something a little unusual about the combination of flavors and ingredients used in its staple dishes, leading this restaurant reviewer to suspect there is something a little less than authentic going on in the kitchen at Strings.
The cafe offers a wide array of Italian staples — from pastas, to pizzas, and soup — every day of the week, but to get the most for your money, you can drop by on Wednesdays, when Strings offers all you can eat pasta for $9. Strings also offers free meals on patrons’ birthdays, which is generous in its own right.
I opted for an item off their specials menu for dinner recently. Arugula pizza, piled high with cheese, pesto, sun dried tomatoes, olives, and artichoke hearts. The pizza came out surprisingly quickly, and I was excited to see that the crust looked crispy, just how I like it. Between the melty cheese, herbal smell of the pesto, and large mound of fresh arugula, it seemed as if I was in for a treat.
Upon actually grabbing a slice and attempting to eat it, I became a little disillusioned. The outer crust was, indeed, crispy, but the crust in the center was soggy and limp, and it couldn’t support the weight of all of the ingredients without flopping over.
After some maneuvering, I found my grip on the slice and dove in. All of the ingredients were there —the savory and somewhat spicy sun-dried tomato, the peppery arugula, slightly tart artichoke hearts, bitter olives, and gooey mozzarella. It was a mouthful, to say the least.
Once I processed all of the flavors I began to realize that this wasn’t that great of a pizza. The ingredients were authentic, sure, but they weren’t balanced right. The artichoke hearts on top of the arugula, olives, and sun dried tomatoes, made the pizza overly acidic. The cheese didn’t balance out these flavors, and I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth.
A generous sprinkling of hot pepper helped add some good flavor, mostly because it covered up the odd array of ingredients beneath.
The food, overall, wasn’t the worst Italian food I’ve had, and the minestrone that came as a side was pretty tasty, but Strings is nothing to write home about. If you’re craving a huge portion of pasta, and your birthday happens to fall on a Wednesday, you could have quite a time at the little Italian cafe. Otherwise, it might be best to head over to Botto Bistro, for some authentic Italian cuisine.
Strings Italian Cafe
11720 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito
Tel. (510) 234-2233
Sunday - Saturday: 11 am to 9 pm
View their Yelp page here.
Photo: Blue Apron