More bang for the Lira

La Dolce Vita steeps penny-pinching in romance and taste

Value. It's become a buzzword--True Value, Value Pac, value-added, Valujet, family values. What the heck does it mean, anyway? Going to a warehouse grocer and buying a pallet of off-brand "Cheerios?" Hocking your diamond navel ring to get a Lexus instead of a Chevy Cavalier? Does it mean cheap, good, or some indefinite combination of both?

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.

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.

Something happened here, and I hope it's just growing pains. Mission statements larded with self-righteous pretensions aside, Cafe Society, with its book-friendly atmosphere, diverse selection of coffees, provocative art and poetry, and eclectic assemblage of old chairs and tables, was one of the best spaces ever created in Dallas when it opened in 1992. Founders Cheryl Cooper and Laurie Sandefer built on the concept, launching a coffee roasting company in 1994 as well as a cafe in Manhattan in 1995. Sandefer, who now is the sole proprietor, decided to move the cafe next to the coffee roasting facility in Deep Ellum after prohibitive hikes in their Travis Street lease. The new space has promise, if for no other reason than the coffee roasting factory-cafe linkage is a juicy twist on the brewpub concept. Unfortunately, it's stuffed with cliched warehouse touches such as used brick, high ceilings with exposed rafters, and concrete floors.

It still features art, music, books, coffee, and the hodgepodge of old tables and chairs, but the cozy nooks and crannies, like the food, are gone. Perhaps Cafe Society's mission statement writers are open to the possibility that rigorous standards and structure are often necessary adjuncts to expression, whether it be in the arts, politics, or cuisine.

La Dolce Vita. 1924 Abrams Parkway (214) 821-2608. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight.

Cafe Society The Factory. 209 Henry St. at Commerce (214) 745-1964. Open Monday-Wednesday 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thursday & Friday 7 a.m.-12 a.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.-12 a.m. Closed Sunday. Local Delivery, take-out, and catering.

La Dolce Vita:
Shrimp and calamari $4.75
Italian cold cuts $4.75
Large insalata vita $4.95
Pasta dinner $5.95
Small pizza $5.95
Creme brulee $3.75

Cafe Society:
Society Tuna Nicoise $5.95
Cuban roasted pork $6.95
L.T's Hot Tamale Plato $7.95
Deep Belgium Delight $6.50

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