Virginia B. Wood on the delights of Dolce Vita and her updates on Austin's restaurant scene.
Since restaurateurs Bick and Erica Brown opened Dolce Vita (4222 Duval, 323-2686) in the busy heart of Hyde Park five years ago, my impression was that the snazzy little shop sold gelatos, sorbettos, and espressos, finito. But since Erica's mom Concetta Mastroianni took over in August of 1996, the product line and the whole concept of the business has expanded to suit Concetta's vision. I visited Dolce Vita recently and her handiwork is readily apparent. Yes, the freezers are filled with glistening gelatos and sorbettos in flavors from cioccolato to mango. But now, shiny glass cases on the countertops are filled with an inviting assortment of delectable European-style desserts. There are dolci, biscotti, tortes, and tarts of every description. I sampled tarts in a delicate pasta frolla (a slightly sweet pastry dough) base: the Hazelnut Tart with a nutty-sweet filling under a thin, shiny layer of chocolate ganache, and the Payard's Chocolate Tart, a decadently rich sliver of elegant bittersweet chocolate based on a recipe from the renowned New York patisserie. One of the cases holds lacey pizzelles to crunch with a scoop of gelato, tiny buttons of shortbread sandwiched together with chocolate, and a divine, crisp Gianduja bar, the perfect combination of hazelnut and chocolate in a cookie just right for coffee-dunking. Undoubtedly, the best dessert I tasted that day was Mastroianni's tiramisu. Tiramisu is ubiquitous now, with restaurants all over the world offering different renditions of the Italian sweet. Concetta serves a chilled slice of satisfaction in which the flavors of creamy dark chocolate, the bite of espresso-soaked sponge cake, and smooth, cocoa-dusted whipped cream marry beautifully in every bite.
The other unique innovation is the addition of a full-service bar. Glass shelves behind the counter are stocked with an impressive selection of premium liqueurs and liquors: single malt scotches, small batch bourbons, imported rums, grappas, cognacs, and flavored liqueurs from all over the globe. Dolce Vita is now a great place for cocktails without a traditional "bar scene." Hyde Park neighbors and destination diners alike gather in the relaxed, classy atmosphere. Observing the scene at Dolce Vita one evening, I was reminded of a passage from Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun in which the villagers of an ancient Tuscan hill town gather in the local gelateria on mild evenings to eat, drink, and gossip. The Dolce Vita of Concetta Mastroianni's vision imparts a little slice of Italy for Austin to embrace.
There's lots of buzz about the re-opening of the Granite Cafe, so look for a joint announcement from San Gabriel Restaurant Group owner Reed Clemons and Taproot Bread owners Sam and Molly Dickey this week... In response to customer demand, Eddie Bernal is extending the hours at 34th Street Cafe (1005 W. 34th, 371-3400) from 11am-9pm weekdays and adding blackboard specials to the evening menu... Look for the hot Austin Java Company to open their fourth location at The Backyard, just in time for concert season... Flip's Satellite Cafe (7101 Hwy. 71 W, 301-1883) is now open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday, 5-9pm with chef "Mississippi" John Stepan on the range and an extensive list of beers and wines to complement his menu.