A couple of weeks ago jazz guitarist Gino Fanelli called to tell me that his band, the Gypsy Strings, had added a new violin player that I had to hear. The group’s next performance was the upcoming Sunday brunch at La Dolce Vita, an Italian restaurant in Detroit.
Now, first of all, I don’t like to go out for brunch. I always eat too much at buffets. I like to read the paper and sip coffee on my deck or watch the Sunday morning news shows. I like to greet the morning peacefully and gradually. But my wife and I decided to go so we could hear the band.
We had not been to La Dolce Vita. I don’t know why, especially in retrospect. I suppose I cannot eat at every restaurant in Detroit, although I do try. Our visit was on a gorgeous Sunday at noon. What we found at the nearly hidden eatery was surprising in the best possible ways.
Although the restaurant has no sign facing Woodward, short of a little one proclaiming LDV, the place isn’t difficult to find, about three blocks north of McNichols on the east side of Woodward Avenue, opposite Palmer Park. The entrance and the parking lot are at the rear of the building, and from Woodward, the building is ominous — simply a green painted shell with windows you can’t see into. At the corner, transients sometimes hang out, looking hungry.
But around the back, visitors enter a courtyard oasis that seems to have been transplanted from a small European town, with decor, ambience, clientele, food and service that seem transported from a place far away. A fountain trickling water is surrounded with lush greenery; flowers and vines grow over side walls and cover an iron fence, secluding the place from Woodward. Tables with umbrellas for shade cover a brick patio with potted plants filling up the space.
And filling the setting, what a scene! The eclectic crowd indicated to me that we were definitely not in suburbia. The clientele was racially mixed with several gay couples, families of all ages, large groups and children who were enjoying being outdoors on such a beautiful day and the scene had a distinctly urbane look and feel. With all due respect, it isn’t the same as eating in Birmingham. The conviviality was certainly abetted by the mimosas and Bloody Marys served in abundance.
Dining in La Dolce Vita’s patio is not like other local alfresco dining that puts you a few feet from the curb on a busy street, inhaling exhaust fumes from passing cars. This is a sheltered area.
As good as the food is said to be, it seemed secondary to the ambience during my single brunch visit. But, thankfully, it was not a buffet. The short menu includes a few outstanding poached egg dishes, French toast filled with mascarpone cheese (somewhat like a cream cheese), fresh fruit, some pastries and a few specials (we were not informed about the specials, unfortunately, until after we had ordered). Our waiter wasn’t as enthusiastic as one would hope.
However, the eggs Benedict and the fettuccine in a cream and fresh herb sauce topped with Italian ham were excellent. It was a caloric splurge. We usually eat hollandaise (served on the eggs Benedict) only when we’re in New Orleans.
The Gypsy Strings were the perfect accompaniment to the brunch scene — and the band is better than ever. The four-piece jazz ensemble plays in the tradition of Eastern European jazz and guitar godhead, gypsy Django Reinhardt. The group melds the sounds of two guitars, a stand-up bass and a violin for a charming and romantic dining experience.
If you like music — and who doesn’t? — hear this band at your first opportunity. Someday soon you’ll say, “I knew them when …”
On a subsequent visit to LDV for dinner, also outside, the experience was much the same, with a scene as interesting as the brunch crowd. On Tuesday evenings, a DJ provides music for dancing, with live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights. La Dolce Vita has regulars who are there to enjoy the good life.
As for the food, the dinner pastas were our favorites. Veal and chicken dishes are also offered, including standards like veal marsala and chicken piccata, as well as some interesting salads, including one that features a variety of greens combined with shrimp and pancetta (an Italian bacon).
Just being outside is its own reward. Do not complain if there is an occasional bug. The alternatives are to eat inside or endure bug spray.
And at dinner, the service was fine.
Lunch is served Tuesday through Friday. If you are reluctant to venture south of Eight Mile, try La Dolce Vita during daylight hours. Get familiar with the location. There is valet parking. It’s hard not to have a good time. Go soon. Summer is fleeting.
And, I now like to go out for brunch.
La Dolce Vita is located at 17546 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Call 313-865-0331.Jeff Broder is a chowhound for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]