There were no press releases, no media dinners, no big announcements of a debut. Yet somehow, the people who know these things knew about Dolce Riviera, a dazzly new Italian spot in the Harwood District.
By the time I found my way in, its blue banquettes and blue-checked slipcovered seats were filled with crisply dressed, well-pressed, air-kissing patrons. French doors opened onto a lushly landscaped patio, off of which an outdoor bar felt like the fabulous lounge of a chic Mediterranean resort -- you could be sipping prosecco on the Italian Riviera, or maybe Frascati in a Roman garden, enjoying la dolce vita, the sweet life.
Yes, at Dolce Riviera life does feel sweet -- until the food starts coming.
Inside the dining room with its white tablecloths and whitewashed brick and Italian movie star vibe, things start out well enough: A wooden board loaded with pillowy focaccia, marinated olives and nibbles of Parmesan is a pleasant complimentary welcome.
And over the course of two visits, I had a few inoffensive dishes: crisply fried calamari; bresaola (thinly sliced air-dried salted beef) crowned with lemony arugula salad and slices of Parm; a veal Milanese that could have been more tender but sported a nice crust.
But the further into the menu I ventured, the dicier things became.
Vitello tonnato was dismal: Thin slices of cardboard-stiff, flavorless veal (cooked until every trace of pink was gone) were plastered to the plate with a layer of tuna sauce too thin to help the hapless veal.
Life at Dolce Riviera feels sweet -- until the food starts coming.
The salads I sampled should have sent the chef back to cooking school. Panzanella, whose charm is meant to come from bread soaked in the delicious juices of ripe tomato, was a sad assembly of hard croutons, wan-flavored tomatoes and watery cucumber. Anatra affumicata was a composed salad involving five components that refused to acknowledge one another: slices of smoked duck breast squiggled with saba (grape-must syrup); raw green apple; spring mix; crushed, toasted hazelnuts (some of them rancid); and a dollop of mostarda, the savory-spicy fruit condiment usually served with meats or cheese. Such perplexing randomness on that plate.
So who is the chef behind the picture window of Dolce Riviera's snazzy display kitchen?
Well, there isn't one: Christian Sbordi "helped ownership to concept the initial menu," says general manager Danilo Di Nardo, "but actually never executed the menu after we opened."
That might explain the pastas, which were -- to channel our president-elect -- a complete disaster.
Cacio e pepe -- normally a deliciously simple dish of spaghetti with cheese and pepper -- was a small wad of drastically overcooked spaghetti set in a frico (Parmesan wafer) basket with the texture of a shoe that had been left in the rain. A few black peppercorn fragments clung to the pasta, but most -- barely crushed -- had bounced all over the plate.
Strangozzi (a long pasta that's said to resemble shoelaces) with seafood in tomato sauce had a dried-out texture like reheated leftover spaghetti. Lasagne all'Emiliana, whose menu description promised Bolognese beef ragu in its layers, was a dense mass with no discernible ragu. Gummy gnocchi were finished with either shaved truffles or construction paper -- hard to tell.
After I tasted linguine as slick as the kind that comes from a box, I asked our server if it was really house-made, as advertised. No, he said, it's not.
Nor is the gnocchi or the paccheri, he explained, adding that one or two others of the nine on the menu are brought in as well.
I held up a menu, pointing to the part that says (or shouts, really) ALL PASTA IS HOUSEMADE.
"Well, 90 percent of them are," he said. (Math lesson, per piacere!)
Di Nardo attempted to clarify the situation later, when questioned by email in the course of fact-checking. Paccheri is the only pasta not made in-house, he said, adding that our waiter misunderstood when he saw pasta "coming out of the freezer." (Huh? Why would you freeze it if you're making it fresh in your "pasta laboratory" every day? Another confusing answer followed, involving an "old school technique" designed to avoid surface bumps on the noodles.) House-made or not, there's major work to be done pastawise at Dolce Riviera.
Its menu offers no actual pizzas, but there are piadine -- Roman-style flatbreads. The one I tasted, topped with a good tomato sauce and grated mozzarella, was kind of chewy, like eating a bedroom slipper.
Such perplexing randomness on that plate.
Fish and meats were maybe a little less sloppy, with the exception of clunky, wine-sauce-drenched pistachio-crusted lamb chops that consorted nervously with sweat-pea purée and red-onion marmalade. Branzino baked in parchment was fine; the rubbery clams and mussels trapped inside with it, not so much.
And by the way, these dishes don't come cheap, especially for a restaurant that doesn't have a chef: $36 for the branzino, $38 for the lamb, $22 for the gummy gnocchi.
In case you're thinking of stopping in to soak up the atmosphere (which really is lovely) and enjoy the service (which really is gracious), I'd recommend the fettuccine, sauced in its promised -- and quite decent -- ragu Bolognese.
Or hey -- live a little, and order a grilled bone-in rib-eye steak, if you don't mind parting with $46. The one my table shared, cooked beautifully medium-rare and sliced in the kitchen for us, was, after all that pasta nonsense, surprisingly good, served with roasted fingerling potatoes and green beans.
It may not be much like what you'd find in a seaside spot in Portofino, but it does taste very much like, you know, Dallas.
Dolce Riviera (1 star)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (salads, antipasti and piadine $12 to $18; pastas $16 to $24; lunch main courses $22 to $38, dinner main courses $26 to $46; desserts $10 to $14)
Service: Charming and attentive
Ambience: Airy, whitewashed and relaxed, with an Italian movie star vibe and an appealing outdoor bar, lounge and patio. A place to see and be seen, like an Italian version of Le Bilboquet.
Noise level: Can be somewhat noisy, but not terrible
Location: Dolce Riviera, 2950 N. Harwood St., Dallas (valet entrance on McKinnon, between Randall and Wolf); 469-458-6623
Hours: Lunch Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. A midsize computer tablet wine list with fairly high markups (most bottles checked were more than triple typical retail) offers a good selection of Italian vintages, along with assorted New World and Old World bottlings. About 20 are offered by the glass, about half of them Italian.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50