If you’re thinking the last thing South Beach needs is another fancy Italian restaurant, Dolce might make you think again. It’s perfectly situated, right across the street from the Delano in the newly rehabbed Gale Hotel, a Deco jewel spit-shined with exquisite detail. It’s stunningly beautiful with its minky-gray wood paneled walls and cushy leather banquettes. The low-slung light globes make the buff and buffed crowd look even better. Tables and staff are dressed sharply in contrasting white and black.
It’s crisp. It’s new. Yet, it all feels as if it has been there forever. Since way before attitude came to town.
Dolce parent, LDV Hospitality, is no stranger to the business. With more than 19 venues across the globe, including Scarpetta and Lucy’s Cantina Royale in our own backyard, they can run a class act.
Enter from Collins or Washington and find seats on two levels as well as under wide patio umbrellas that bring back memories of long evenings spent in Roman piazzas.
The scene inside is equal parts good looking and just plain good. The specialty is pizza; however, veteran executive chef Paolo Dorigato from Trento (near Milan) also puts out fantastic salads, hand-rolled pastas and risottos as well as lovely grilled dishes.
John Lermayer’s creative Italian cocktails are a great match for the casually elegant scene. A randomly organized (work-in-progress) wine list of maybe three dozen bottles is divided roughly between New and Old World with plenty of glasses from $10 to $30 to satisfy those who like variety or drink alone.
But it is the wood-burning oven that’s to blame for my taste buds aching for toasty, yeasty, freshly baked pizzas.
Luckily, before you can say “Scusi, cameriere,” a hot, flaky, soft and salty focacciaina appears at the table, dotted with tiny sprigs of fresh rosemary. But do save space for real pizza. The Napoletana with anchovies and capers has nice pops of briny bits, while the chewy crust has the requisite touch of charcoally black char.
Salads here also embody the age-old formula of using fine ingredients in simple ways to create fantastic flavors. A tre colore salad is large enough for the whole table. The lightly dressed bowl is composed of evenly chopped, perky leaves of arugula, radicchio and endive, while the addictive arugula version with pears, asiago cheese and slender sheets of just-sliced speck is set off by sweet candied walnuts.
Grilled fingers of octopus served on a bed of tiny chickpeas and farro dotted with pistachio nuts and a hint of ginger is my favorite of the hot antipasti, while the buttery balls of curd-filled burrata over Boston lettuce, cherry tomatoes, crispy shallots and bacon are swoon worthy. A simple tower of tuna tartare is fresh as Japanese sushi with a zing.
House-made pastas can be a bit salty and large (the kitchen doesn’t do half portions to be served as first plates unless you ask nicely and they will plate one dish for two) — but still, the taglietelle dyed green from the verdant basil pesto with springy rock shrimp is a dish to enshrine. So too, the decadent pappardelle alla Bolognese with shredded veal, pork and beef that forms the transportingly rich sauce.
A pink, tomatoey seafood risotto has as much shrimp, scallops, calamari as plump Arborio rice. It’s a solid dish if not a must-try.
A textbook eggplant parmigiana scores points for its top-of-the-line, melty, buffalo mozzarella and fine tangy sauce of San Marzano tomatoes. Juicy roast chicken with a shatteringly crisp golden skin is worthy of a food magazine cover with its bronzed fingerling potatoes, baby asparagus tips and perfect squares of roasted red and yellow peppers, as is the skillful and classic branzino.
Cheese lovers will attack the mozzarella bar, where fresh, made-to-order platters of glossy orbs entice anyone who ever enjoyed the smack of milky goodness that comes with the good stuff.
While the service level is miles above what usually passes for decent in South Beach, it can be a bit overexuberant. While most of our handsome staffers were polite, intelligent and knowledgeable, one waiter took to banging his fist on the low wooden divider between the tables to emphasize how much he liked certain dishes until we were fully convinced. He also interrupted us five times to ask how we were enjoying our meal after two managers had just done the same.
Desserts include the usual suspects like tiramisu, chocolate mousse and cannoli but also a fanatically light and silken panna cotta with the bright tropical tang of neon orange of mango puree.