“This place could be in Beverly Hills,” a California-based wine and food writer observed as we sat in a brick-walled courtyard on a warm evening, a fountain gurgling behind us and a lush green wall of ivy climbing a good 20 feet up the adjoining building.
As dusk settled, the trees around us came alive with strings of little twinkling lights circling their trunks. Beyond the decorative iron gate, traffic streamed northward.
But this was not Beverly Hills, Calif., or even the Detroit suburb of the same name. It’s a charming restaurant with good food and both an outdoor and indoor bar somewhat hidden behind a gate that fronts Woodward Avenue near Six Mile Road in Detroit’s Palmer Park neighborhood.
La Dolce Vita has been at that location for nearly 15 years, where it has earned a certain level of appreciation. Then, earlier this year, when Il Posto closed (its Web site is still up and suggests it will be back), Chef Matteo Giuffrida came to LDV and apparently brought a lot of Il Posto’s clientele with him. One of our servers said he had come because of Giuffrida.
In its day, Il Posto was a significant restaurant. It opened in 1997 with great fanfare and immediately vaulted to become one of the top three or four restaurants in the area, thanks largely to its creator, chef Gianni Belsito, who later moved to Arizona. It had a lovely traditional urban-Milan interior, and a dinner-jacketed wait staff, several of whom were lured directly from Italy. It was grand and impressive.
On a Friday night at La Dolce Vita, the valet parking lot (you must drive around back to park and enter the restaurant) is crowded with Mercedes, Cadillacs, BMWs, and Audis.
The three parking attendants aren’t the only ones hopping. The wait staff, one of the most polished and professional in the area, are working hard to handle a sudden rush of arrivals wanting to be seated on the terrace, which is set with a dozen or so umbrella tables. Latin singer Lola Morales and her guitarist and percussionist are setting up equipment for the evening’s entertainment. The inside of the restaurant is a beehive of activity, as well.
La Dolce Vita is a pleasant surprise, considering that it sits in what is not exactly a hotbed of restaurant activity, although the Palmer Park and nearby Palmer Woods have retained their aura of affluence.
The interior of the restaurant looks out onto the courtyard and the wall of ivy. It consists of two main rooms and a large bar separated by brick arches and punctuated by large black-and-white photographs and simple pinpoint lighting here and there. It has warmth and a gentle charm.
Giuffrida comes with quite a pedigree. Before Il Posto, he had cooked for a while for former President Ronald Reagan in California and he was chef at the Doral Country Club in Miami, a résumé that’s well-advertised in photos throughout the restaurant, which show him with the Reagans and many other celebrities.
On two visits, the food was extremely good, and the cooking is very traditional northern Italian. If you liked Il Posto for that, chances are you’ll also like La Dolce Vita, though the menu is not as glamorous. There’s no hollowed-out big wheel of Parmesan cheese in which hot fettuccine is tossed, for example.
I found the daily offerings on two visits to be superior to items on the regular menu, which is the way it should be, but not true of most restaurants. From among the first courses, the shrimp La Dolce Vita is a delight. Three large prawn-sized sautéed shrimp appear between the halves of triangular puff pastry. The shrimp are springy to the touch and deliciously fresh. They sit in a bed of lemon-garlic cream sauce, sprinkled with shredded basil leaves. It’s simple, but very delicate, and the flavors and textures are well-matched.
We try a traditional fried eggplant from the first-course listings. It consists of four thin slices of a small eggplant that are breaded and sautéed to an orange-brown color, coated with fresh goat cheese, and then a layer of warm, fresh tomato and basil sauce is added. It’s perfect. So often in such dishes, the sauce is added too early and the breading absorbs water and becomes soggy. Not here. The eggplant remains crisp on the outside, but warm and moist inside. And that makes all the difference to the texture and taste.
Also very good is the fried calamari served with black olives, red peppers, and a spicy marinara sauce on the side. Not a particularly unusual dish, except that the preparation is exceptional. The frying of the calamari is so light and delicate that it arrives at the table a lemon-yellow hue.
On the second visit, we decide to do this meal in the Italian style, so we order a pasta course to be served between the first and main courses. I pick the strozzapreti — which translates as “priest stranglers” — a thin, twisted pasta about an inch long served with a tomato-based ground veal sauce. One order is split thee ways. Two restaurants in town used to make this dish more notably than most: Bacco and Il Posto. In Il Posto’s absence, you can find its equal at La Dolce Vita.
Other items on the first-course menu include half-moon shaped ravioli stuffed with white Alba truffles and served with a basil sauce. Gnocchi comes Piedmontese style with a four-cheese sauce. There’s also a dish of linguine with clams and mussels in olive oil, white wine, and a rich tomato sauce.
Among the nine main courses, a lake perch is sautéed to a slightly crispy exterior and finished in white wine with a dash of oregano and a tomato sauce on the side, very traditional, but exceptional in the preparation. Likewise, a plate of sautéed veal scaloppini is served in sauce reduced from porcini mushrooms and Barolo wine, a rich and savory combination. The other standout is the veal scaloppini medallions served with grilled baby artichokes, which arrive fork-tender, and a veal reduction sauce.
The special main course on our visit was a veal shank that was delivered to the table accompanied by the chef himself, who then carved it. Admittedly, when I saw the size of the shank bone — a good 18 inches of a lower leg — approaching the table on a carving board, I gasped. Having tried to cook one of those myself, I fully expected that this was going to be one of those overly greasy, heavy, and clunky pieces of shank. I could not have been more wrong.
There wasn’t all that much meat, but the marrow added a round richness to the flavor of the meat, which was cooked to tenderness without any fat or greasiness. Giuffrida removed it all efficiently and poured the light-brown veal reduction sauce over the meat. It was perfect, served with sliced redskin potatoes in a cheesy cream sauce and a timbale of slightly sweet eggplant and zucchini.
La Dolce Vita is a pleasant delight, particularly for its outdoor terrace. Traditional Italian restaurants are fewer than they used to be, giving way slowly to big chains that serve a lot of what to me is imitation Italian. La Dolce Vita is solid and honors traditional Italian cooking well.
So go and enjoy. Someday these restaurants, too, may go the way of our daily newspapers and be here no more. Only then will we really miss them.