More bang for the Lira

La Dolce Vita steeps penny-pinching in romance and taste

The wood-fired pizzas are also a standout with thin, flaky crust, just the right amount of tomato sauce, and gooey gobs of that homemade--if bland--mozzarella. The wine list made my blood simmer a bit, though. It's included on the menu and is extremely simple, with 10 wines each priced at $14.95 a bottle and by-the-glass offerings at $3.50 (plus a Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne priced at $159.95. Figure that one out). A no-brainer, right? So how come no one on the wait staff seems to know anything about the list? Diners just might appreciate a flavor description of the offered Multepulciano, Valpolicella, or pinot grigio as well as how they fit in with the menu. Geez, if it's too much trouble to commit to training the staff with a list of just 10 wines, then strip the damn things off the menu and serve Hearty Burgundy, Sutter Home white Zin, and K.J. chardonnay. "I dunno" gives me a friggin' red-wine headache.

On the dessert side, La Dolce Vita has one of the best creme brulees I've ever tasted. It's hearty and coated with a crisp, caramelized burnt sugar crust over a light, fluffy custard. Plus, it's topped with some of the freshest, juiciest raspberries and blueberries ever found on any dessert anywhere. I also had my tongue set on a gelato (Italian ice), but there was an outage. How can you be out of something like this on a hot, sweaty Dallas summer night and call yourself an Italian restaurant?

OK, so there are a few irritants here that really burn my fries. But when I review the menu and see the prices, survey the upscale romantic setting, and smell the mostly high-quality food, I realize how easy it is to slip into a different mindset and hold this place to a higher standard than perhaps is fair. Instead of value, maybe "valuable" is a better word to describe La Dolce Vita.

There's a phrase in Cafe Society's philosophy statement that gave me pause. Extolling turn-of-the-century cafe culture, the statement, printed on the menu, reads, "This unprecedented combination of people constituted a radical breakdown of social barriers. In the 1990s, Cafe Society is still about breaking down false barriers..."

Hmmm. In my experience, the folks most adept at erecting barriers are those who are perpetually congratulating themselves for denouncing real or imagined barriers everywhere else.

But while this slowed me down a bit, the conclusion of Cafe Society's mission statement stopped me cold: "We value free expression over structure, creating standards only as necessary for the safety and well-being of the whole." Forget for a moment that those advocating societal breakdown tend to limit "free expression" to all assertions that don't offend their own elevated social sensitivities (hence their zeal for speech codes and other forms of disguised censorship). What I want to know is what our false barrier demolition crew means by "creating standards only as necessary for the safety and well-being of the whole." Does this mean that any old scoop of gruel is fine as long as it passes county health department muster?

Evidently so--judging from Cafe Society's menu since it made the move from Travis Street to Deep Ellum this past July. The new menu seems to reflect a literal interpretation of that silly mission statement. Remember when you could order imaginative, well-executed dishes such as artichoke-spinach-stuffed manicotti or marinated skirt steak with orange peppercorn salsa at the Travis Street location--dishes with, um, standards? There's none of that here. To be fair, part of this has to do with logistics: There's no griddle or grill in the new location. But that doesn't obliterate the possibility of creating a completely fresh, simple menu with surprising touches. Yet there is little evidence of this either.

Our fresh field greens salad, delivered to us instead of the Society Greek Isle salad we ordered, did have fresh greens. But the cucumbers were slightly dry and the tomatoes--an unappetizing shade of translucent brown, as if they'd been sliced and left out a good part of the day--were a bit rancid. Plus, the salad was served in an aluminum pie pan that made my fillings tingle each time my fork scraped bottom.

Next, I gave "the planet's best artichoke and romano dip" a whirl. Accompanied with pieces of toasted, dry focaccia, the dip--artichoke hearts, romano, garlic, and lemon--was also dry and had none of the promised tang and zip.

That same menu described the Society Tuna Nicoise as a "Frenchified" version with olives, roasted red pepper, capers, celery, and mayo on country sourdough bread. Here's how it arrived: tuna and mayo with wilted greens between two slices of very stale white and wheat pinwheel bread. This place seems to have forgotten its own standards in its quest to tear down those bothersome societal barriers.

Not fully trusting my own bourgeois-centric sensibilities, I gave the Cuban roasted pork sandwich with mango salsa on focaccia a whirl. A potentially brilliant stroke, the sweet, tangy mango and pig flesh interplay suffered from off flavors in the thinly sliced pork--as if it, too, had been sitting out for a while. Plus, it came with this delicious red cabbage-sliced carrot salad zapped with a spicy vinegar concoction that had an irritating tendency of soggying the focaccia. Yecch. We also tried L.T.'s Hot Tamale Plato in hopes of discovering a gem. But you could find more supple tamales at 7-Eleven, and the accompanying sausage was nothing but a fat version of the sour, pungent Frito-Lay shrink-wrapped sausages displayed at liquor store check-out counters. Even the coffee lacked vigor. They served us a killer Belgian waffle, though.

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