IT WAS RIGHT about the time I was tearing into the second hunk of homemade Italian sausage, while simultaneously reaching for the pizza and passing the Gorgonzola, that it hit me: I love Dolce Vita because it’s a shut-up-and-eat kind of place. Yes, it’s owned by Marco Wiles, the best Italian chef in Texas. Yes, it’s mobbed by folks for whom eating out is a secular sacrament. But if you didn’t know that from the get-go, you’d never guess. Imagine that you’ve gone to visit friends in Italy who proceed to take you to all the little hidden-away trattorias and wine bars that you would never find on your own and then prod you into eating dishes that you would never try on your own. That’s Dolce Vita.
Those of you who know Wiles’s flagship Houston restaurant—the pretty, refined, cottagey Da Marco—are in for a surprise with this “pizzeria and enoteca.” For one thing, it’s on a marginal stretch of lower Westheimer (get yer body piercing and adult DVDs here!), the sort of neighborhood where you are happy to run into an off-duty policeman (“Hi, officer, nice night”). It occupies a revamped two-story house that has been spiffed up with new paint and casually outfitted with wooden tables and chairs. So as soon as you walk in, you’re in a loosen-your-tie mood.
You sit down, flip open the menu, and guess what? No spaghetti with meatballs! No fettuccine Alfredo! Under “pasta” is bucatini with tomato and chiles and octopus. Under “verdura” (“vegetables”) are sweet wood-roasted parsnips served chilled with saba (a fruity syrup made from grape must that you’ll be seeing more of—trust me). Under “altro” is the classic trippa alla romana, a stunningly chewy specialty for gladiators and menudo lovers. We’re talking adventure, friends.
But even wimps have a host of wonderful choices. A salad of escarole and a terrific olive-oil-and-lemon-juice dressing comes buried in snowdrifts of pecorino cheese. The endearing “truffle egg toast” is my new favorite comfort food. The thick slices of fluffy pugliese, drizzled with warm egg yolk and truffle oil, reminded me of heart-healthy Saturday breakfasts long ago when my father would fry up acres of bacon and eggs and we kids would mop up our plates with toasted ButterKrust bread.
And then there are the pizzas—but what pizzas! The showstopper features a layer of creamy, mellow Taleggio cheese, a handful of arugula, and a crown of thinly sliced pears (I would like a lot more of those, please, Mr. Wiles). And have I mentioned the crust? It’s all puffy and blistered from the wood-fired oven. Terrific stuff.
Not everything is perfect. While my crisp-skinned snapper was pretty darn fabulous, it came atop mushy eggplant disks. A cauliflower side dish bored me silly until I hit the mother lode of pine nuts and raisins at the bottom. And the classic ricotta-and-chocolate-chip filling of the Sicilian cannoli seemed dense and coarse, although the wonderfully delicate pastry shells shattered into a million little pieces at the touch of a fork. But on balance, Dolce Vita has won me over. You don’t have to have attended the Culinary Institute of America to savor its earthy, elemental Italian fare. This is KISS—“Keep it simple, stupid”—raised to a fine art.
Or, please, just shut up and eat.