Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Dolce Vita Grill & Vineyard

13435 University Avenue
Clive, Iowa 50325
(515) 224 7477
Open for Lunch and Dinner
Closed Sunday and Monday

This new restaurant claims it is “A Taste of the Sweet Life” and it delivers on its promise. Located on University between Abella Day Spa and The Club Car, Dolce Vita Grill & Vineyard is an amazing and satisfying experience.

The moment you walk through the door, this small, intimate restaurant opens its arms and its heart and offers everyone the warm, family welcome of the hospitable Greek Islands. The interior décor and mural transports you to the hillside town of Oai, atop the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea. You are looking down on the azure waters, past the ancient blue-domed buildings of the sun-baked, seaside villages of this magic island.

Immediately on entering the restaurant, you are greeted by what can only be described as the Dolce Vita ‘family’—Georgio, the welcoming, exuberant host, with a handshake and a personal introduction and fascinating explanations of the cuisines, the culture and the pleasures of the Greek table for all; Shelley, the pleasant, laughing hostess with perfect suggestions for adventures in dining; Carolina (kar-o-leen-a), who had to have walked in straight from the volcanic beaches of the Aegean and who, five minutes into her first night, extended as warm and gracious a welcome as if she had been there for years; John, the owner and all-around keeper of the culture and the cuisine; and “Chef,” with his insights into the dishes and obvious pride in his suggestions of delights to sample.

Seated, with white tablecloths and burgundy napkins, fresh flowers and glowing candles, Georgio and the rest of the Dolce Vita family begin their magic. It’s as if you have been invited to the islands for a family dinner at an intimate ‘locals only’ restaurant like Perissa in the village of Megalochori or Kamari in picturesque, out-of-the-way Emborio. Georgio approaches with a smile, wine glasses and four bottles of Greek wine, enthusiastic to sample and explain the wonders of each; Shelley hints of Greek lamb chops, large and perfumed with mint, orgegano, lemon and fresh pepper; and suddenly there is bread, fresh-baked from the kitchen, rope-twisted in the Santorini fashion, luscious in texture and perfectly balanced with the taste of cinnamon and sesame.

Santorini is famous for its cherry tomatoes, so flavorful due to the ‘terroir’ of the volcanic soils of the island that they are considered the best in the world; in fact, the International Cherry Tomato Conference is held there each year. The Santorini soil also produces flinty, flavor-packed wines: brusko, a hearty red; nichtiri, the intense white; and vissando, the sweet, powerful red. The grapevines all over the island are grown in woven baskets on the ground and watered only by the dew, owing to the dryness of the Aegean climate.

Dolce Vita offers an interesting selection of wines, including Greek varietals, California, and Italian wines. The prices, by the glass or by the bottle, are extremely reasonable. The house red wine is a California cabernet at $4.50 and is from Barefoot Cellars. Barefoot is a high production winery, but actually produces good, balanced wines at a very reasonable cost. They also produce a sparkling wine that is as good as many higher-priced champagnes. Most wine lovers pass over Barefoot because of its low cost, but “A” and “D” would suggest a blind tasting of the cabernet, and be prepared for a surprise! On this evening, “A” and “D” chose a DiVinci Chianti at $23 a bottle, an excellent Italian from the great producer, Antinori of Tuscany, and representative of the values to be found on Dolce Vita’s intriguing and affordable wine list. At retail, DiVinci is about $20 a bottle, so the very modest mark-up by Dolce Vita says a lot about their hospitable views towards the customer. Georgio’s wine service is smooth, polished and, yet, friendly and always engaging.

“A” and “D” shared a generous Greek salad as an appetizer. This was a crisp, absolutely fresh arrangement of romaine and iceberg lettuce, tomato, cucumber cubes, and plump calamata olives, perfectly dressed with a Greek olive-oil and lemon vinaigrette producing dancing flavors and aromas. Fresh, ground pepper accented the salad perfectly.

Appetizers include classic dolmades, stuffed grape leaves with seasoned beef and rice served with lemon sauce. Whole calamari, stuffed with crab meat, broiled and served with lemon sauce is another alluring appetizer not found on Des Moines menus. Spanakopita is amazing and rewarding, a traditional spinach and feta cheese wrapped in phyllo dough and served with the zesty and mouth-exciting tzatkiki sauce. A seafood dip with baby shrimp, scallops, spinach and toasted peppers in a rich cheese sauce is also an appetizer specialty. Prices range from $5.99 to $8.99, and the servings are large. Three of these wonderful appetizers per person could be a delightful and interesting ‘tapas’ approach to Greek dining.

“A” followed Shelley’s lead and ordered the Greek lamb chops, fresh broccoli with butter, lemon and toasted walnuts, and homemade fries (which really are homemade and good). The lamb was requested medium and came hot and perfect from the kitchen. Holding forth in the kitchen is an experienced chef from New York, and his talents are in evidence. This is exceptionally good food, especially for $14.95.

“D” followed Georgio’s suggestion and ordered the Spartan’s Platter, a three-dish combination of spanakopita, moussaka and pastitio, a layered pasta and cheese similar to lasagna, but with a much more subtle and interesting medley of spices. Portions are very ample and are accompanied by a perfectly prepared rice pilaf. This superb dish was high value at $13.95.

The extensive menu also includes Italian dishes. Choices range from linguini carbonara to penne pasta and linguini Caruso, a shrimp and clams sauté with olive oil, garlic and Italian spices. Veal parmigiana, eggplant parmigiana and lasagna round out the favorites.

For lunch, sandwiches, salads, soups are available, featuring Italian meatball, sausage and an authentic and delicious gyros made in the classic tradition and served in fresh pita bread.

The dinner menu also features savory chicken dishes, seafood dishes, including orange roughy, Mediterranean style salmon, and flounder stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. Steaks include Romanian steak, a bone-in strip steak, steak Diane, medallions of beef tenderloin, and—the evening “A” and “D” were there—an off-the-menu special, bacon- wrapped filet mignon for $14.95. Dinner entrees range from $9.99 to $15.95.

“A” and “D” were visited at each step of dinner by the entire Dolce Vita family. They are not the least bit intrusive; they are fun, interesting, excited and above all, natural-born hosts; they actually care about how you like the dishes and the wine and the service. They all want you to be happy and want you to become a regular member of the ‘family.’ For “D,” this was the closest dining experience to the legendary welcome of being a ‘regular’ at an east coast Italian restaurant. There, you are made to feel a part of the family and are often invited to weddings, graduations and special gatherings. That is exactly how the staff of Dolce Vita makes you feel the first time you dine at the restaurant. Extraordinary!

Even though “A” and “D” really had no room for dessert, Shelley and Georgio painted such word pictures of pastries and cakes that we relented and shared two masterpieces of the sweet life: karidopita, a dense, walnut cake with a honey-rum sauce; and galactoboureko, a silken-creamy, dense custard covered with layers of phyllo, spiced with hints of cinnamon, and drizzled with honey and, perhaps, a hint of lemon. Both of these are one-of-a-kind, Academy Award-winning desserts and not to be missed, especially at a stunning value of $2.99 each. These are huge portions!

And, the ever-vigilant Shelley suggested a unique and gracious addition to the dessert course. For only $1.00 each, they pour a generous sample of dessert ports. You can choose from an excellent and unusual California Zinfandel ruby port, or a classic Australian tawny port. We had one of each, and the entire meal was capped off to perfection, leaving a glow of pleasure not unlike a day in the Aegean sun.

The total bill was $62.00, a very reasonable $31.00 each, and this included a bottle of good wine. You will have to search Des Moines high and low to find a better value, a better dining experience, better warmth and friendliness, and better food than you will find at Dolce Vita Grill & Vineyard. And with service this good, a generous tip is indicated.

This is a restaurant created and operated by experienced restaurant professionals. After the initial delightful décor and ambience, you have the engaging and refreshing personal warmth and service as a pleasant backdrop for the absolutely excellent food. This restaurant will be successful because of its outgoing, friendly, hospitable attitude, its nice people, as well as its great food and excellent value. This is the authentic cuisine of the Greek islands. This is a moment in time, a moment in the sun with the joy and happiness of the Greek culture and history, a moment in Des Moines where you can—truly—willingly escape to enjoy two hours of “A Taste of the Sweet Life.” It just doesn’t get any better than this!

Quality: Superb! 4
Service: Superb! 4
Ambience: Superb! 4
Value: Superb! 4
Recommended: Absolutely! Often and with Friends!


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