One of my favorite Foodies-at-Arms often expresses a hankerin' for "good red-sauce Italian." Surprisingly, there aren't a lot of places around here (only two come to mind) that successfully fulfill that need, so he's always on the lookout. Apparently the last time he was looking out, he was using powerful binoculars, because La Dolce Vita in Long Neck was suddenly the subject at hand. In fact, over the past several years I've received a number of emails suggesting that I check out La Dolce Vita. Most of your emails cited fair prices, large portions and consistently decent food. It's taken me this long to motor out to Long Neck a few times to see what the place is all about. And I'm glad I did.
Is this haute cuisine? Elegant fine dining? No & no. But it is family friendly and informal, with freshly prepared Italian served with a smile.
The restaurant is on the left about 2-3 blocks south of Rt. 24 on Long Neck Road (turn left if you're coming from Lewes or Rehoboth Beach) at the end of a little strip center. Many years ago it was home to the Villa Rosa restaurant operated first by Chef Joe Sapienza's grandfather, then his father, then Joe himself (Joe eventually moved on to be the opening chef, along with Gary Papp, at The Brick Hotel in Georgetown).
Around 2007, the space was sold to Kathy and Don Wood (she was an alumnus of the Eagle's Nest) and they renamed it Ciao Bella. Similar concept; family style Italian. Their claims to fame were (1) 100% fresh stocks and sauces, and (2) their host Kevin, a local character who drew lots of people into the spot.
In early 2010 the space became home to La Dolce Vita. Vincenzo "Pop" Beddia and his son Faicel prepare all the sauces in the pan to-order, except of course for the marinara which must have time to simmer. Commentary on the Internet is predominantly positive, with very few complaints other than how long it sometimes takes to get a table. That's really a compliment.
One of the stars of the appetizer show is the Italian Wedding Soup [pictured, left]. It is perfectly savory, and the tiny meatballs are plentiful and tender. Leafy greens, carrot chunks and bits of chicken make this a particularly satisfying soup. In fact, it's one of the best we've had anywhere. Another tasty (if not filling) appetizer is the Garlic Bread with Cheese. Nothing fancy, but quite good, with lots of creamy cheese. Bread & cheese: The perfect bite in any language.
The dinner salad [pictured, right] is cool and fresh, dressed in a basic but tasty balsamic vinaigrette. Bitter greens are a nice value-added.
My go-to dish on any first visit to "red sauce Italian" is the parms. If they can't manage a decent parm, then they can't manage anything. So I started with the Veal Parmesan [pictured, left]. The portion is generous, and the preparation delightful. I opted for what they call the "diablo" version (slight upcharge, no big deal) which uses a peppery/spicy sauce. (Technically the proper term for that sort of preparation is "diavolo." Just sayin'....) If you like spicy, get that sauce.
The veal is pounded out to a perfect thickness, thus preserving the all-important meat-to-breading ratio. A thin layer of sauce is covered by what appeared to be a combination of gently melted provolone, mozzarella and perhaps meunster. Either way, it was creamy and delicious. A crunchy hunk of garlic bread shares the plate.
On our following trip I couldn't get anybody to order anything with meatballs or hot Italian sausage (additional go-to items for me), so I ordered one of each on the side [pictured, right]. There are several surprisingly unlikely places in Rehoboth Beach that have wonderful meatballs, and I now add La Dolce Vita to that list (though you have to trek a bit west). The meatball is tender and not at all tough, with a satisfying blend of spices. The large cut of hot sausage is surprisingly lean and cuts easily with the side of a fork. When they say "hot," they mean hot. Get ready for a happy kick from this one. I wonder if they will let me order the Veal Parm with hot Italian sausage on top?
The main course on that visit was Chicken Piccata [pictured, left]. Two (count 'em, 2) chicken breasts are sauteed with white wine, lemon and capers. A side of angel hair pasta shares the plate. A little curlycue of lemon is perched atop it all, making for an attractive presentation. Two dishes deserve a mention, and are tied for stars of the Marsala show: The Veal & Shrimp Marsala enjoys a brown cream mushroom wine sauce, and is finished in the oven for a golden hue. A similar preparation works for the Chicken and Shrimp Marsala. The only difference is chicken instead of veal. Both dishes are quite good.
If I had to have one gripe, it would probably be with the spaghetti that came with my veal parm on the first visit. It was unnecessarily thick, undercooked and under-sauced. It did not measure up to that great parm dish. Fortunately, the veal plate was so generous that I only took a bite or two of the spaghetti anyway. I think the angel hair that graces the marsalas would have been preferable. At least it was cooked all the way through.
UPDATE: It's summer 2013, and we had so many good meals at La Dolce Vita that we actually returned there once again. "Pops" and his smiling crew did not disappoint. The rather thick spaghetti I whined about in the previous paragraph has been replaced with angel hair pasta. This is wonderful. It is delicate, and on every visit, perfectly cooked and not overly sauced. I had the four-cheese lasagne [pictured left] and it was perfectly done. The creamy ricotta was not drowned out by the marinara which looks somewhat heavy, but is not. I couldn't resist getting that nice hot Italian sausage with it.
Our vegetarian companion (who is never without a tree branch or a couple of leaves upon which to nibble) had the evening's special: House-made gnocchi with pesto, artichokes and sundried tomatoes [pictured, right]. We politely shared a bite and it was quite good. I would stand that up against any other Italian restaurant here at the beach, no exceptions. Her companion ordered the Eggplant Parmesan [pictured, left]. I usually don't like Italian dishes with eggplant because the fruit (technically a berry) always seems to end up wet and slimy. Eggplant can get that way if not cooked properly. This was cooked perfectly. Moderately sized rounds were sautéed to a crispy bite and treated as a parm should be treated. In spite of the creamy cheese and the marinara, they stayed crispy and held their shape. Angel hair and a chunk of garlic bread (also graced with a dollop of marinara) accompanied.
Last and certainly not least was an order of Spaghetti & Meatballs [pictured, right]. Simple, but perfect. And the meatballs were exactly the same as we had had over the previous several weeks.
Apparently they make their cannolis there [pictured, left], and the one was shared was very nice. What stood out is that it wasn't too sweet. You could actually taste the cheese.
I am raising the food rating from 8.5 to 9. These people deliver on their promise of good, reasonably priced food. They deserve it.
We now return you to our program already in progress:
Cross your fingers that they have the Seafood Diablo (Diavolo!) on the menu if you go. Truth be told, we did not get it, but all three occupants of an adjoining table did, and they loved it.
The Tiramisu is homemade and tasty [pictured, right]. It is not too winey, and has a tender, fresh texture. The presentation is a work of art.
La Dolce Vita is at 32369 Long Neck Road on the street-end of a little sideways strip center on the left. You can't miss it. It's obviously a neighborhood, family friendly place, but from what I have experienced and what I've read, they do a consistently good job crankin' out the red sauce Italian.
At present they are open 3:30 - 8 weeknights and 3:30 - 9 weekends. Early birds get half-portions for a flat $10 from a limited menu. They do not serve lunch. Call to check their expanded in-season hours at 302-945-5008. (D) Price range: Moderate +.