By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Whatever it is, everyone claims they've got it. And it's the word I heard most often in conjunction with La Dolce Vita long before I made my first visit. Even owner Michele d'Antuono got into the act: "Our concept is to reproduce the Italian experience, offering quality, value, service, and atmosphere," he told me. Ed McMahon couldn't have said it better.
And I have to admit, every time something didn't go quite right with the La Dolce Vita dining experience, I had to remind myself that my meal wasn't costing much more than a paper bag of grease-trap cuisine plucked from a drive-through window. La Dolce Vita used to be a coffee shop in the Lakewood Shopping Center before d'Antuono and his partners, Gaetano and Bruno Mascolo (of Toni & Guy fame), walked into the place and discovered that the space "spoke" to them. They took it over in mid-1996, operating it in its original form for five months before shutting down to transform the place into a trattoria.
And what a job they did. Touches include an open kitchen with a brick oven for wood-fired pizzas; a coffee bar serving frozen coffee drinks along with lattes, cappuccinos, espressos, and mochas; and a long, narrow corridor with a cobblestone floor meant to resemble an Italian street cafe. Each corridor wall holds a huge mural too vast to absorb, given the tight quarters. The left side depicts a countryside setting, complete with rolling hills and birds in flight, painted by artist Frank Campagna. On the right is an Italian hillside village scene by artist Dana Bauman created through a process called "Encastro." Incorporating layers of crushed marble, Encastro is a succession of seven or so layers of this plaster-like substance applied to the wall with a spatula to render an image. This process is also used in the dining room, most notably above the window, where a group of ghostly human forms cling together. Bauman also painted a couple nuzzling through a cloud of coffee steam on the dining floor. Sweet.
Which is what La Dolce Vita is; its name literally means 'the sweet life'--an easy thing to have at these prices. The menu is simple, with a handful of appetizers ranging from $3.75-$4.75; a soup of the day at $2.95; salads; pasta ($5.95); and small ($5.95) and grande ($8.95) pizzas, plus a few desserts. That's it. This is hearty sustenance with good flavor, for the most part.
Not to say there's any rocket science here. Italian food is caloric intake for the masses. Folks may balk at French escargot, Spanish tripe, or Chinese fish bladders, but virtually no one vehemently objects to pizza or a plate of spaghetti Bolognese. Thankfully, La Dolce Vita has a broader range of fare drawn from all over Italy, but mostly from the central and southern regions, where tomato sauces and pizzas predominate. Starters like the Gamberi e Calamari (shrimp and calamari) were hit-or-miss. Swimming in a pond of lemon butter seasoned with thyme and parsley, the calamari was tender, but the shrimp, lightly dusted with bread crumbs, was swollen and soggy. The dolce vita--a platter of cold cuts (sopressata, a northern Italian salami, and prosciutto), olives, provolone, and fresh mozzarella--suffered from additional glitches. The house-made mozzarella was moist and spongy with almost no flavor, while the platter came equipped with just two olives (one black, one green) and was delivered without provolone. This olive stinginess carried over to the Insalata Vita--a salad plate with thick, unevenly sliced blanched carrots, mushy blanched celery, Roma tomatoes, and a wedge of avocado--which also had just two olives. Covered with juicy, flavorful tomatoes, the bruschetta was prepared with the house rosemary focaccia bread, which proved dry and cakey when toasted. The stuff also had precious little garlic.
The pasta dishes, however, were an unqualified success. With a choice of seven pastas and 10 sauces ranging from simple tomato to cream prosciutto, these entrees all came al dente, topped with sauces that were fresh, robust, and flavorful. The campagnola--a tomato-based sauce with pecorino cheese and white wine--featured tender, moist meatballs of a perfect consistency made with beef, red and green peppers, celery, onions, and parsley. Equally compelling was the putanesca with mild anchovies, black olives, garlic, oregano, and capers. This tomato-based sauce was rich, intensely well balanced, and cut with a brisk caper tang.
Another pasta selection, the pasta al forno, was the lasagna version of Two-Face. On one side of this cleanly demarcated dish was a rich whipped cream northern Italian bechamel. The opposite side was coated in a fresh, tangy southern Italian tomato sauce. The layers of this light, delicate noodle dish held eggplant, yellow squash, ricotta cheese, green peas, mushrooms, and that same ground meat found in the campagnola's meatballs. This meal was easy to slip down because it was richly flavored, yet mild and much less dense and heavy than traditional lasagna.