Fifty years ago Frank Vigilotti came to the United States from Italy and settled in Central New York. Recently, four of us got to visit his restaurant, Dolce Vita World Bistro on East Genesee Street across from Syracuse Stage. (His pizza parlor is right next door). We also got to meet his daughter Antonietta, a charming, unassuming woman, who welcomed us warmly and treated us to a wonderful evening.
I have been to Dolce Vita before, and noticed that the menu had changed since I was last there. And I was right; Antonietta and the rest of the staff keep a close eye on what their patrons like and eat, and adjust the menu accordingly.
We started with wine from a list that includes offerings from New York, Italy, California, Spain, Chile and Australia. Three bourbons were featured and five martinis listed under the specialty drink category. Lots of beers, too.
Then came the butter. I love butter. Me and Paula Deen. Dolce Vita decided to diverge from the typical olive oil (which I also love, by the way) and offer their patrons a varying selection of butters to go with the bread that is fresh-baked at their pizza shop just next door. Something different, nice. They serve both savory and sweet butters, and on our visit they offered cinnamon toast crunch butter. Delish? You bet.
Antonietta had decided at one point to banish butter from her household and her daughter Antonia’s life. But then she brought some cinnamon butter home and the next thing she knew, an entire loaf of bread was gone. And why not? Life without butter would be unfortunate.
The menu is large, and Dolce Vita offers items from all types of cuisine. Once we met Jim, our waiter, we knew we were in capable hands and asked him to bring us a selection of the bistro’s best. So he did.
We started with the firecracker calamari, which is their best seller. If you love calamari, as I do, the fatal mistakes are to over-bread and over-fry, and they didn’t. The squid was lightly breaded and spicy-hot.
Then Jim brought what I would best describe as mushroom pillows; a delicate, flaky pastry surrounding a creamy, mushroom mixture that was very well received. The crab cakes are loaded with real crab, lightly breaded, pan-fried and served with a spicy aioli.
Dolce Vita had introduced me to the grilled Caesar salad on a previous outing and now I make it at home. You might think, as I did, that grilling lettuce would result in a soggy, moppy mess, but a quick pass over the grill leaves the salad with a wonderful, smoky char. They grill the capers, too, which I am definitely going to have to figure out how to do at home, since the result is a crispy, lemony accent to the sharp and cheesy salad. It’s a do-over for me. The Dolce salad included mixed greens, mandarin oranges, goat cheese, dried cranberries and a raspberry dressing.
Dinner started with wild mushroom ravioli with truffle oil. They got the pasta right as to al dente. The ranchero chicken, served with poblano peppers, cheddar and bacon, appeased our most particular eater. It was fiery. Maybe the best part was the side of Spanish rice, flavored with Adobo and loaded with halved grape tomatoes and big strings of red onion. It was so savory.
Our meat eater was offered a correctly prepared steak with mashed red potatoes, bacon and blue cheese. My paella drew the most conversation because it had such a delightful, smoky flavor. Despite the fact that the menu indicated it contained the traditional saffron, we thought maybe there was some other spice involved. No, it was saffron, but the cooking method lent itself to some real smokiness that we all enjoyed.
Chef Mike Braga outdid himself that night. Despite the array of offerings, he was spot-on as to temperature for everything. Jim brought us red velvet cake and an Oreo cake, both tasty, although we were completely stuffed at that point. They also offer cheesecakes from Big Mama’s, which is located at the Northern Lights shopping center.
Dolce Vita is kid-friendly and offers chicken tenders, burgers, spaghetti and the like. Beer-battered or broiled haddock is offered for their Friday-night fish fries. Live bands are there to entertain on Wednesday nights and some Fridays. On the way in we met a group of ladies from a local office, thoroughly enjoying the free happy hour they had won by throwing their names in a bowl—this includes drinks and hors d’oeuvres for the winner and 10 guests.
Dolce Vita is available for rehearsal dinners, showers and other parties of up to 45 people. Your private party gets the entire restaurant to yourself. Based on a couple of stories Antonietta told us, it appears informal matchmaking services are also available. Dolce Vita is the perfect spot for dinner before Syracuse Stage, but it would be great for any downtown or Syracuse University-related event.Dolce Vita World Bistro, 907 E. Genesee St. (849-9944; www.dolcevitabar.com, has dining hours on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays from 4 to 9 p.m.; Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Saturdays, 4 to 10 p.m. Regarding bar hours: If you’re there, they’re there!