Hidden, in plain sight, within one of Detroit’s many working-class neighborhoods, in an unmarked building, with an undistinguishable address, is one man’s vision for a fine Italian dining experience.
La Dolce Vita sits anonymously in the neighborhood across from Palmer Park, just east of Woodward Avenue, near the majestic apartment buildings built in the 1920s by Walter O. Briggs.
Twenty-two years ago, while bar-hopping with friends, Enrico Rosselli discovered a recently shuttered restaurant – where he decided to fulfill his dream by opening a restaurant that reflected his philosophy. His four tenets ‒ atmosphere, quality food, affordable price, and quality service ‒ reflect his belief that the best place to find these attributes is at home.
“Eating at home is the best thing,” Enrico says. “Most people enjoy foods they are familiar with.”
The intimacy of La Dolce Vita is immediately evident, as, upon entering through the back alley, a valet greets you. The patio, one of the first and best in the city, instantly takes you away from the noise and bustle of the area, instilling you with a feeling of serenity.
While we wait for our table, we take a seat at the bar – situated along the back wall, and separated from the dining area by a row of booths. The bar patrons are a lively bunch, and the regulars mix with those of us who are just waiting to be seated.
Having chosen to eat outside, we end up with a table overlooking the garden.
The atmosphere is no accident.
“Dining is supposed to be an experience,” Enrico says. “When I go out to eat, I want to discover a place that does quality food. And since it’s supposed to be an experience, you need ambience, and that is why – when I found this patio – I said, ‘This is an ambience second to none.’”
One sees Enrico’s heart in every aspect of the dining experience, particularly the patio and restaurant layout, which he designed himself. He considers these things every bit as important as service, quality or price.
La Dolce Vita, he says, is “an oasis in a desert, or an orchid in an onion field. You don’t expect it to be here. That’s what I counted on. I don’t believe I’m a genius, but I have a lot of heart.”
Atmosphere is only one element of the dining experience. Equally important is the food. The menu stands out as more authentic Italian than Italian-American. Since the restaurant’s inception, Enrico has believed in only using fresh ingredients and quality products, a reflection on the core of his philosophy. Following the recommendations of Antonio, his head waiter, who has been with Enrico since the beginning, we ordered a sampling of their appetizers and entrees to try for ourselves.
We started with the Caprese, a mozzarella and tomato salad. It arrived with a side of assorted breads. For a hot summer night, it was a wise choice, cool and fresh. Sautéed Artichoke Hearts and Bruschetta followed with the same simplicity.
As the sun was setting over the patio and my dining partner was finishing her critique of our order, our entrees arrived: Grilled Salmon, Sautéed Lamb Chops and Sautéed Prawns, delivered with a simple explanation about each dish, and plated with expertise. Following Enrico’s vision, the plates were simply dressed and the portions were exacting. The wine list, although modest, is stocked primarily with Italian selections, reflecting another of Enrico’s principles ‒ the cost for dinner should be reasonable.
Enrico’s fourth principle, quality service, is confirmed by La Dolce Vita’s success with returning diners. Many of his clientele are frequent guests, becoming familiar faces or friends.
Once, a regular overheard Enrico’s plans for expansion of the restaurant. He offered his opinion ‒ contrary to the plans being considered ‒ and Enrico listened, agreed, and stopped the expansion, keeping the intimate atmosphere intact. Other guests have offered decorating ideas for other minor improvements. Each time Enrico listened, and in some instances, followed their advice.
Enrico attributes much of his success and continuity with his diners to his staff. In a business notorious for high staff turnover, many of his employees have worked for him for years. Enrico believes in caring for his workers, giving them the freedom to create and innovate. This, in turn, reflects in the consistency of serving his guests. His patrons are comforted by the familiar faces they see serving them each time they visit.
Despite the importance Enrico feels about consistency, La Dolce Vita is always experimenting with new ideas. A recent idea, a bi-monthly Sunday pajama party, has garnered a huge following. Guests try to out-dress each other by arriving in outrageous pajamas and vying for the prize of Best Outfit. During the summer, Thursday nights on the patio are hosted by a DJ playing ‘80s and ‘90s music.
In the beginning, La Dolce Vita was open only three days a week. Now it is open six days a week for lunch and dinner.
Enrico has taken an unconventional approach to promoting his business. He doesn’t have street signage or advertising ‒ he relies only on word of mouth from diners to get people through the doors. There, the successful execution of his principles keeps them coming back.
Although 90 percent of his guests come from the suburbs, Enrico is starting to see an increase in guests from the nearby neighborhoods of Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest and the University District, all burgeoning areas.
Americans associate Italy with great food, but Enrico is showing Detroit that the Italian dining experience is as much about ambiance as the culinary arts. If La Dolce Vita customers come away from the experience feeling they’ve experienced Italian cuisine rather than merely having eaten it, then Enrico has truly brought some of the real Italy to the Motor City.