Drool-worthy Italian food hiding in plain sight.
A day devoted to errands and depriving me of sustenance has me ravenous by evening. Life has its way with the restaurant I originally have my sights on so I end up at La Dolce Vita (LDV, from now on in). It catches my eye because of its billboard proclaiming their bistecca alla fiorentina, a thick porterhouse steak, but more on that later.
I’ve heard about this restaurant primarily because of its mother branch in Ermita, Manila. The one in Makati has been here the past three years and the waiter mentions something about new management, but I’m so hungry that everything is white noise right now.
It’s amusing that on its Facebook page , the restaurant describes its interiors as “… European-inspired and is a mish-mash of Venetian and Roman influences in a modern and trendy way.” If you can understand that then you might appreciate the truly “mishmash” (!) collision of Italian design influences. Gigantic Venetian masks adorn one wall while bas reliefs of womanly figures supporting effusions of sprouting shrubbery are on another. An alcove hosts a rather benign set of posters illustrating “La Dolce Vita!” and above the bar, space age leaves frozen in aluminum mold house some decidedly disco light fixtures. And if all that’s not enough, some parts of the room are bathed in an iridescent blue, thanks to strategically situated disco lights, a quirky chiaroscuro, if you will. LDV bills itself as a bar and restaurant and the mood lighting jazzes up the bi-weekly Salsa Nights. Enough said. It’s a challenge to take decent photos here.
Frankly, I don’t care what a place looks like as long as it’s relatively clean, and more importantly, the food makes me forget everything else. LDV hits the mark on both counts and because of that, I’m here quite often.
The restaurant is quite proud of its wood-fired oven and utilizes it spectacularly. Their pizzas (P450-P680) are over 12-inches in diameter, the toppings bolstered by a crust that’s doughy near the center and thins out to the delicately crisp, sometimes charred edges. A slice must be picked up with both hands lest it falls like a fainting female. Or do what the Italians do and fold the slice lengthwise.
There are many temptations when it comes to pizza at LDV including the traditional Margherita (mozzarella, tomato, fresh basil), Pizza 4 Stagioni (mushrooms, artichokes, ham, anchovies, mozzarella, tomatoes) and a few calzones and vegetarian options.
Do what I do and order half of two choices: mine are the 4 Formaggi (P520) and the Pizza Fellini (P620; you’ll be charged for the higher priced pizza). Blue cheese welcomes the palate with its earthy pungency giving way to a lingering creaminess that transforms into the middle notes of the remaining cheeses – gorgonzola’s mild acidity and tang, the sweet nuttiness of taleggio, and mild mozzarella melds it all together. It’s a flavor quartet that’s already exquisite in its simplicity with an added fillip of balsamic vinegar. Reduced ‘til it’s thick and sticky, it anoints the pizza with a flash of sweetness – and then it’s gone with nary a trace to allow the cheeses to shine.
Chili oil so good I had to take a picture of it!
The star of the Pizza Fellini is the prosciutto, supple and pink against a monotone of mozzarella di bufala (water buffalo). A topnote of saltiness dominates, supplied by a short spurt of feral meatiness, a crunch of crust, and then a milky-mild sweetness to prepare the palate for the next bite. Please don’t ignore the drip-bottle of chili oil on the side of your table. LDV has the most potent chili oils of any (Italian) restaurant I’ve tried. Swizzle a swirl on a slice and taste how it elevates your eating experience. A caveat: it’s hot stuff!
same pasta dish, different noodles
Pizza and pasta are the perfect pair and LDV doesn’t disappoint with either. Though it’s not on the menu, LDV has a super carbonara (P375), salty and sufficiently creamy. I’m fascinated by the Spaghetti Neri (P750), which promises “black spaghetti with squids (sic) and giant prawn in tomato sauce.” But I always cave and order the same thing, the Penne Al Granchio (P370). This is real crab meat, evidenced by the occasional harmless remnant of shell, doing the tango with tomato sauce rounded out by a finish of cream. Sometimes I have this dish made with penne, other times with spaghetti noodles (see photos above). Either way, all ways, it’s always good, properly al dente and satisfies me thoroughly.
On the menu under Homemade Pasta, is a real crowd pleaser of a dish, the Tortellacci al Porcini (P460). I’m usually quite skeptical of “homemade pastas” in local Italian restaurants primarily because the portions are miniscule. But LDV’s portions, pasta and everything else are sizable. The Tortellacci al Porcini are squares of giant ravioli filled with mushrooms. They’re chopped so finely that they’re almost invisible but their earthy essence is detectable. The ravioli itself is joyfully bite-y, not tough as homemade ones tend to be, each square caressed in a porcini-cream sauce that weakens knees and dieters’ resolves. Unlike the gassy, overly enthusiastic glugs of truffle oil and porcini powder some cooks ply their pastas with, this dish has been lent a restrained hand. Every person I’ve introduced this dish to has been unwilling to share it with me upon first bite.
Pass on the risottos here, they’re more like paellas and the Osso Buco (P950) would be stellar if it weren’t so tough. Though not veal, a whole beef shank is served complete with bone marrow, and its sauce is thick and robust.
As for that bistecca alla fiorentina (P300 per 100 grams), LDV gives due attention to Florence, Italy’s justly famous dish. Really just a thick porterhouse steak lavished with salt and pepper and rubbed with olive oil, LDV’s version adds some red wine and grills it over charcoal. The waiter tells me that the meat is imported from Italy, though perhaps not Florence and definitely not from Chianina cattle (the beef traditionally used for this dish). I can’t say it’s the best steak I’ve had in Manila but I can recommend it with reservations. First, order your steak one level below your desired doneness preference, and secondly, enjoy this steak as part of an Italian meal, and not in a steakhouse, macho-me-eat-meat sort of way. Sometimes, it’s really about taking in the experience as a whole without bringing in preconceptions (or even misconceptions!) about what food should or shouldn’t be.
When you order a main, you’ll be asked what side dish and veg you want. From the short list you’re given, I highly recommend the creamed spinach. Simultaneously smooth and gritty, it can sometimes be a little salty so advise your server. Also, my Bin has an unreasonable love for LDV’s roasted potatoes. I’m not too hot about them but the restaurant does a good job of making them super crispy on the outside with steamy, starchy middles.
LDV morphs into a bar at about 10pm, complete with undulating disco lights. Move to another section or move outside where there’s adequate seating. You can have a decent round of drinks here with unique selections from the pica-pica menu that include deep-fried Italian breads stuffed with all manner of things from cheese to tomatoes, chicken croquettes, seafood on skewers (spiedino), etc. Service is efficient but I’d recommend getting a male server. I don’t mean to be sexist but the guys seem to be on the ball and more familiar with the menu, as opposed to the girls who seem a bit distracted. I’ve also never been here for lunch so if disco balls and surreal lighting that doesn’t necessarily flatter is not your thing, then go during lunch.
La Dolce Vita Bar & Restaurant
41 Polaris Street, Bel-Air, Makati City
(02) 899 5611
La Dolce Vita Manila
1335 A. Mabini St., Ermita, Manila (beside Citystate Hotel)
(02) 526 3993