Spanish Coastal Fare Found in Charlottesville

By Patricia B. Mitchell, 1990.

Small, new La Barraca, at 2125 Ivy Road (U. S. 250) just west of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, bills itself as having “continental cuisine with a flavor of Spain.” Low-key decor and ambience allow the high quality of the ingredients and the cooking skill of Emilio and Teel Piero to take center stage.

“La barraca” means “the cottage with a thatched roof,” referring to a typical Valencian house. Do not come expecting to order nachos or other zippy Tex-Mex fare. This food is an ocean, if not worlds, away: delicate, subtle, European.

Emilio is from Valencia, Spain (famous for oranges and rice), and Teel is originally from Halifax, Virginia! Emilio learned to cook from his mother, an older brother, and as an apprentice to an Italian chef in Washington, D. C., under whose tutelage Emilio realized that Mediterranean cuisines are not totally dissimilar.

Spanish dishes may utilize rice whereas Italians typically choose pasta, but Spanish and Italian sauces are akin, and the creative cook can formulate new flavors by developing combinations from both cuisines. Emilio explains modestly that he “has a good tongue for sauces.”

The star of La Baracca's menu is the paella, a generous celebration of rice, seasonings, chicken, and seafood served on Wednesday and Sunday nights, or with a 24-advance request. One can also order paella vegetarian-style, but the shrimp, mussels, and whole pieces of chicken would be hard to resist.

My favorite dinner selection is the arroz al horno, which is traditional Spanish rice baked with garlic, turnips, and garbanzos, and seasoned with saffron. This casserole can be ordered without meat or with a delicious triumvirate of chicken, beef, and sausage.

Two less flamboyant offerings are the excellent, tender, savory pollo mareado (boneless chicken fillets sauteed with mushrooms and Marsala wine) and the pretty fiesta del mar (a medley of claims, mussels, and shrimp steamed with fresh garlic, parsley, and wine, and served over spaghetti noodles with a red or — better still — white sauce).

As a prelude to all evening entrees, a choice of sprightly spinach salad or house salad is available. The mouth-watering mini-loaves of baked-on-the-premises bread are another winning feature of this restaurant. Several outstanding appetizers are offered; our favorite was the calamari, a stellar example of fresh fried squid with garlic mayonnaise or marinara sauce. Domestic and Spanish wines are available, as are desserts.

A typical complete dinner costs around $20. La Barraca is open for lunch, too, when lighter meals, including pizza, are served.