Dolce Vita's Simple Recipe for Success: Fairfax Trattoria Offers Taste of Italy, Attentive Service

Article excerpt

Stepping into Dolce Vita's airy, modern Fairfax cafe with its rough-cut marble tables feels like meeting friends at an Italian trattoria.

Dolce Vita means "sweet life," and signs of that Italian zest for living are all over. Exuberant cafe-goers drawn in black and white on the walls sip wine under umbrellas and climb the stairs to the landmark church of Santa Margherita. Sprinkled among them are blasts from the past - Cristoforo Columbo with his ruffled sleeves and his nautical compass, the Mona Lisa and her glass of wine and Roman statesman Caesar toting a bowl stuffed with his signature salad.

The cafe's proprietors, Joe Ricciardi and Ricardo Bellucci, who opened the restaurant a little more than a year ago, greet you at the door with their soft Italian accents. Generous and exuberant, they sound genuinely glad to see you. You might recognize one of them sitting just behind you in the mural too, close by Sophia Loren.

No wonder they're beaming.

The decor is shiny black and white with marble and a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows along one side, overlooking a small outside seating area. There's a shiny black bar at one end of the room where you can sit with a glass of Tuscan wine and watch the pizza being made under the gaze of another whimsical visage: a 5-foot-high wood-burning oven molded in the shape of a face.

The food here is simple, basic, fresh Italian fare. Fifteen types of grilled pizzas emerge from the wood-fired oven, along with grilled entrees such as a 16-ounce porterhouse steak Fiorentina or grilled salmon and a wide variety of pastas. The prices are eminently reasonable.

The service from Dolce Vita's well-coiffed waiters is attentive. The staff shows attention to little things, such as offering a few twists of pepper from the grinder for your salad. And with true European hospitality, they can't walk by your table without refilling your water or wine glass.

We started off with one of our favorite Italian beginners, renowned for its freshness and simplicity - mozzarella Caprese ($5.95), consisting of mozzarella, tomato and fresh basil. Swirled with balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, it is a bracing, yet mellow starter. Homemade slabs of mild mozzarella, which Mr. Ricciardi makes in the kitchen every day, are laid on top of fresh tomatoes and sprinkled with minty basil.

The antipasto misto ($5.95), another classic Italian starter, was a nice variety of sliced Italian meats, cheese and "giardiniera," or marinated vegetables.

The Caesar ($5.95), with its crisp romaine lettuce, was crunchy and nice, light on the anchovies and with a bite of garlic. Fresh shards of grated Parmesan cheese were sprinkled on with a few cherry tomatoes. The Caesar also comes with grilled chicken for $1 more. Insalata Dolce Vita ($5.95), a salad with sun-dried tomatoes and toasted almonds, was also a winner.

Accompany these appetizers with an order of hearty bruschetta ($3.95), brick-oven-toasted bread with olive oil, garlic, fresh tomatoes and basil. Bite in, and you feel as if you're on a picnic, munching crusty loaves on an Italian country hillside. …