Hidden talents

Aug 23, 2000 at 12:00 am

Behind an unmarked facade on Woodward, just north of McNichols, is one of Detroit’s best-kept culinary secrets. There was once a small sign for La Dolce Vita, but it has been removed, soon to be replaced by a discreet marker reading only “LDV.”

Nevertheless, the restaurant has such a devoted customer base, the following request is printed in whisper-small type on the menu: “Please tell only your best friends.”

Perhaps it’s the artistic atmosphere that keeps the clientele coming back. La Dolce Vita is an elegant, hip spot which appeals to a diverse community: Gay and straight (predominantly gay), black and white, conservative dressers and cross-dressers.

Even more likely is that diners return because of the food, which is prepared by chef/manager Steven Reaume. In a tale that resembles the classic movie about the small-time boy making it big, Reaume (pronounced, appropriately, “Rome”) got his start as a busboy and, with no formal training, quickly worked his way up to become one of the most innovative and respected chefs in Detroit.

Back in the mid-’80s, Reaume had completed only a couple years of college when — poor and living in the back seat of his Chevette — he was hired by Peter Meli, who owned a restaurant called Saluté.

“I would stand in the kitchen all the time watching what they were doing,” Reaume remembers. “It was so fascinating: I had never seen how an actual food establishment ran. I thought, I want to do this.”

Reaume didn’t watch from the wings for long. When Meli needed an assistant cook, Reaume begged to be given a shot.

“I guess it didn’t hurt that at that time I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he says. “I said that I’d work at my current rate.”

Six months later, the chef quit without notice. “I jumped in,” says Reaume. “I started studying like crazy. I have a collection of hundreds of cookbooks and manuals and taught myself.”

Reaume’s self-taught method had homespun roots. He learned about food from his grandmother, who grew up on a Michigan farm with 11 brothers and sisters. On the farm, he lived the traditions of cooking and canning homegrown produce.

“Stringing beans, or canning tomatoes, or making jams; it was always a very communal experience.”

Reaume still maintains a genuine pleasure in the communal preparation of food. Glowing about the excellent teamwork of La Dolce Vita’s staff, who work in a kitchen even smaller than some residential ones, Reaume says, “We move in unison — it’s like a ballet.”

The restaurant, owned by Rico Roselli, specializes in authentic Italian cuisine mixed with a dash of showmanship and panache. (The Caesar salads, for instance, are prepared at the table.)

The entrées demonstrate Reaume’s flair for blending the traditional with the trendy. Some dishes that require intricate preparation appear only as specials: pancetta-wrapped tuna (coming this fall), or espresso-glazed chicken served with artichoke pancakes, coconut and almonds.

“One of the beautiful things about food in America now,” Reaume says, “is the whole ‘fusion craze’ … That to me is what America itself is always supposed to have been about. So
shouldn’t the food reflect that?”

Although he enjoys expanding his repertoire of specials, he understands the importance of simplicity. “I always want people to be able to come in here and get a great bowl of pasta with a good red sauce. That will always be the basis of the restaurant.” And one customer insists on a phone call whenever lasagna is on the nightly menu. Yes, Reaume obliges. —Audrey Becker


Try something new at Hockeytown Café (2301 Woodward, Detroit, 313-965-9500). They’ve added more than 30 new menu items in preparation for hockey season. … What to do with all those tomatoes? Grill ’em, of course. Call Weber’s Grill Line at 800-GRILL-OUT for lots of free recipes, tomato and otherwise.

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