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San Diego Spotlight : Lader’s Strives to Be More Than Generic Italian Eatery

Neighborhood restaurants worth more than the usual drive come along rarely enough in these parts, and most of them seem to be Italian.

Lader’s of La Mesa recently joined this small group, and, despite the Germanic ring of the name, the place gives full allegiance to the cooking of Genoa, Rome, Naples and (in many cases) New Jersey. In fact, it describes itself on the menu cover and signboard as an “Italian Gourmet Restaurant.”

That claim might stretch a point--even given that Italian cooking is sufficiently elastic to allow multiple interpretations of classic dishes--but Lader’s does follow nicely in the footsteps of another worthwhile neighborhood spot, Point Loma’s Michelangelo, by packaging what amounts to two restaurants in the same space. Like Michelangelo (which, for the record, remains the better of the two), Lader’s takes a dual approach to cooking by offering separate but complementary menus.

The first of these specializes in basic, American-Italian fare, including submarine sandwiches, pizza, such pastas as spaghetti with meatballs and lasagna, and simple entrees in the vein of eggplant parmigiana, chicken Marsala and the like.

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A second, separate entree list, which surprisingly retains the prices of the primary menu, seems the pride and joy of chef-proprietor Jay Lader. This list changes periodically and usually is supplemented by several specials. It currently offers a number of things not found at the generic Italian neighborhood place, including cannelloni stuffed with dilled king salmon; grilled chicken breast with cilantro, tequila, sun-dried tomatoes and a lime cream sauce (serving this over fettuccine seems to be going further than is necessary to protect the restaurant’s Italian theme), and penne con salsa di noci , or macaroni baked with spinach, ricotta cheese and a cream sauce flavored with crushed walnuts. This is ambitious cooking, especially given the $9.95 to $11.95 price range on this list, which tosses the choice of soup or salad into the bargain.

Lader, whose wife, Julie, waits tables and supervises the dining room, has a considerable history in the restaurant business both on the East Coast and locally, including seven years as chef at the Old Bonita Store and eight years ruling the range at La Jolla’s once-loved, now long-gone Sea Thief. The cooking displays a reassuring sense of concern for quality and most of the dishes are prepared competently or better, although Lader’s recipes for a few items venture too far from the norm, and his over-devotion to chocolate on the home-baked pastry tray presents the conundrum of abundance without choice.

Appetizers, soups and salads all appear on the basic menu, and tend to be basic--the selection includes fried mozzarella sticks, Buffalo-style chicken wings, calamari strips and a typical antipasto plate.

The very best item sampled over the course of two visits happened to be a special, an unusual pasta that Lader calls “the Italian handkerchief.” This consisted of a single, immense ravioli that measured about 6 inches per side, stuffed with a creamy mixture of cheese, minced veal and a little spinach and sauced quite extraordinarily with a brown, wine-enriched gravy fleshed out with mushrooms and shredded beef. Most interestingly, the herbs and other seasonings that went into this sauce combined with the meat to exactly reproduce the flavor of boeuf bourguignonne . Such dishes sometimes appear in Genoa.

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Lader also did well with what the menu called pollo provinciale , similar to the Italian chicken dish termed alla contadina . The pair of breasts, arranged on a lavish field of pasta, were finished with a notably aromatic white wine sauce enriched with mushrooms, chopped tomatoes and roasted red peppers. The veal with eggplant did less well on two counts: The breading on both meat and vegetable was a little soggy, and the serving was topped with smoked mozzarella rather than the plain version of this cheese; the smoky flavor is attractive in some situations, particularly as part of a cheese plate, but does not lend itself well to cooking.

A genuine disappointment was the spaghetti alla carbonara , a widely available Roman classic that calls for eggs, butter, Italian pancetta bacon, Parmesan cheese and a little cream in its preparation. The bacon and cheese alone seemed present, and the dish was discouragingly dry.

Lader sometimes serves bell peppers stuffed with duck and white and red sauces, which is definitely outside the neighborhood restaurant category and sounds quite interesting. Choices from the standing “gourmet” list include tortellini in Gorgonzola cream sauce, penne with shrimp in a pungent tomato-wine sauce and fettuccine topped with creamed artichokes.

Lader’s looks and feels very much like the neighborhood place it is; a come-as-you-are dress code is strictly in force, and one adult customer recently showed up in his softball uniform following a game. Above all, the decor is dominated by pasta, in the form of huge sheaves of spaghetti and bucatini arranged everywhere around the room. But there are also such niceties as the pale roses and softly glowing oil lamps on every table.

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LADER’S OF LA MESA 5654 Lake Murray Blvd., La Mesa 463-9919 Lunch Tuesday-Friday, Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday Entrees cost $7.95 to $11.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $45 Credit cards accepted


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