HOW SWEET IT IS

Dolce Vita might get hectic on the weekends, but how many places can boast a singing owner?

By J. Charles Mokriski, Photographs by Berta A. Daniels, Improper Bostonian, May 2001

I've heard that people in the restaurant business call Saturday evening "amateur night". Presumably the phrase is meant to apply to diners who choose to frequent restaurants at their busiest time, and not to suggest that restaurateurs leave their establishments in the care of amateurs on such nights (although occasionally I have wondered).›

It may well be that Saturday night patrons, competing for tables on the most popular night of the week, lack discrimination and are willing to accept mediocre performance from restaurants pushed beyond their capacity by the crowd.› My recent wildly divergent experiences at Dolce Vita lead me to believe that no matter what the cause, Saturday night may not be the best time to experience a restaurant's most golden moments.

Dolce Vita is housed in a newly renovated space on Hanover Street in the North End, into which owner Franco Graceffa has moved his more modest establishment from next door.› The 60-seat dining room features a high, gray metal ceiling with fans and exposed ducts; mustard-hued walls hung with colorful oil paintings, including a large, bold rendering of two black-hatted Carbinieri; two slender gray pillars; and a lively bar.

On a Thursday night visit, recorded Italian songs and opera were delightful, but on a crowded Saturday night the noise level was such that recorded music was lost in the babble, and the tentative live rendering of Andrea Boccelli songs accompanied by guitar and violin was not much more successful.› Only when the enthusiastic Franco launched into a hearty rendition of "Volare", encouraging audience participation, was he able to overcome the din.

My first impression of Dolce Vita, following the favorable impression made by its earnest, friendly, enthusiastic owner, was predominantly positive.› The waiter brought a delightful plate of assorted olives for nibbling while perusing the menu - plump Calamatas, and tangy green and savory black olives mixed among them.

The soft-crusted bread was disappointing, especially considering Boston's many good bakeries - Iggy's, Clear Flour and Hi-Rise, to name a few.› The wine list was predictable, and while we were temporarily charmed to see one of our favorite domestic cabernets, Beaulieu Vineyards Rutherford, listed at a very reasonable price, our delight turned to dismay when our request for that estimable wine yielded two similar but not nearly as good products with confusingly similar names.›

Franco apologized for the wine list's lack of precision, and we settled on the 1998 Regaleali, Tosca d'Alm-erita, a full-bodied Sicilian red ($22), robust yet fruity.› Dolce Vita also offers a selection of draft beers at a reasonable price of $3.50 for imports and $3 for domestic, including Sam Adams among the latter.› Wine by the glass, on the other hand, is not exactly a bargain, with a skimpy glass fetching $5.

Our very first choice from the menu was a resounding success.› Tortellini a la boscaiola ($10.95) was a soup bowl brimming with large, tender, white and green tortellini. Soft, almost silky in texture, they were swimming in a splendid cream sauce filled with marvelous ingredients - sweet peas, succulent hunks of ham, large mushroom slices and Italian parsley.› The delicate but full-flavored sauce was rose colored from a hint of tomato, and the entire dish complete with a generous dusting of grated cheese, was superb.›

Not so successful was the spaghetti alla carbonara ($9.95) which we tried on Saturday evening, but we suspect that its hurried and substandard preparation - the bacon was undercooked and the pasta erred on the other side - was a casualty of a hard-pressed kitchen on a hectic Saturday.

Antipasti included a satisfactory pomodoro e mozzarella ($6.95), with six thick slices of mozzarella and decent if not memorable tomatoes (late March is not exactly tomato season in Boston) in an olive oil dressing.› Prosciutt e melone ($6.95) arrived as four large wedges of honeydew melon, reasonably ripe and juicy, accompanied by slices of lean, smoky-salty prosciutto.

Main courses varied radically in quality.› The pollo al verdicchio, chicken in white wine from Italy's Marches province ($13.95), was excellent.› As is the case with some of the other Dolce Vita dishes, the menu does not tell the whole story.› Far more than the simple "chicken saut»ed in wine with artichokes" described on the menu, this huge, whole, succulent boneless chicken breast was accompanied by a veritable garden of vegetable, including artichoke hearts, red peppers, flat green beans, thick carrots, cooked celery, large mushroom slices, hefty rings of zucchini and olives.› We had expressed some concern to Franco that boneless chicken breasts are often dry and tough.› He assured us that his would be different, and he was right.

None of the other main courses we tried at Dolce Vita came close to rivaling the chicken. We're not sure whether this was because of the "Saturday night syndrome" or because chicken is something Franco does particularly well.› The Gamberi Scampi ($16.95), saut»ed with garlic and lemon, was satisfactory - five giant scampi of decent texture served on a bed of linguini. Unfortunately, a heavy hand on the lemon preempted the other flavors.

On the meat side of the ledger, we ordered the bistecca alla Fiorentina ($16.95), requesting it rare to medium-rare. It arrived medium-well, and while its flavor was decent, the cut was underwhelming and not what we expected of a Fiorentina.› The least successful of Dolce Vita's main courses was the vitello alla Milanese ($11.95).› Two large cutlets, with an indifferent brown breading, had a texture that bordered on mealy, and reminded us more of something one might find in the supermarket freezer than the well-breaded, fresh-fried scallopini we had been expecting.› Again, the gap between anticipation and actuality may have been the casualty of the Saturday night crush.› Garnishes for both the steak and the veal included well-prepared zucchini, carrots and celery, together with the ubiquitous french fries and a small salad of greens.

Main courses at Dolce Vita were accompanied by a side of pasta, but unfortunately, it was tired and perfunctory, dressed with a thin tomato sauce.› Desserts, on the other hand, included a very credible crňme alla caramella ($4.25) and a first-rate tiramisu.› And in a charming gesture, rare in a town where nothing is given away for free, a handful of fresh, crunchy Jordan almonds accompanied the bill.

It is difficult not to like Dolce Vita, even after its spotty performance on Saturday night.› The exuberance of its owner, its proven ability to produce mouth-watering dishes at a less hectic time, and the good value reflected in its restrained prices make this restaurant well worth adding to anyone's North End list.

 

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