How Sweet It Is

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The pizza at Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca, the city's coolest new Italian joint, is cooked in a 700-degree wood-burning oven. Thanks to the heat of the oven, the yeasty dough, and a light touch with the toppings, the crust comes out crispy and chewy at the same time. Mottled here and there with burnt spots where it got a little close to the fire, and pocked with craters caused by big yeast bubbles, it is by far the best pizza crust I have had in Houston.

Enoteca means wine bar, and Dolce Vita is doing an excellent job of combining the two concepts. The restaurant, which is located in the former Marrakesh location, is on two floors. The downstairs area, with its double-sided bar and row of tables overlooking the pizza oven, is turning into one of the hottest see-and-be-seen spots in the city for the black-T-shirt-and-blue-jean set. Upstairs, a funky maze of dining rooms with parquet floors and faux-wood-grain-painted walls offers lots of quiet corners for intimate conversation.

The menu features a short list of pastas, lots of antipasti items, 12 pizzas and the nightly specials. The pizzas seem to be by far the most popular items. I've tried three of the topping combinations so far, and I like the classic margherita, with tomato, basil and bufala mozzarella best. I can't wait to eat one of these in May with some vine-ripened tomatoes on it.

The taleggio pizza is topped with some truly stinky cheese and then garnished with fresh raw arugula, pear slivers and truffle oil. It's like a salad on a pizza. I loved it, but the aroma of the slightly ammoniated cheese seriously grossed out my dining companion.

I was a little disappointed with the crumbly sausage on the salsiccia e friarielli (broccoli rabe) pizza. The pizza was surprisingly good, but I was hoping for some fennel sausage slices like you get on a sausage pizza at a New Jersey pizzeria. I had to adjust my expectations, because Dolce Vita is not making American pizzas.

Dolce Vita is owned by Marco Wiles, the chef/owner of Houston's best Italian restaurant, Da Marco. Wiles says that Dolce Vita is a tribute to authentic Italian pizzerias. Heating up a brick oven takes a long time, which is why the great pizzerias in Italy are only open in the evening. Dolce Vita is following their lead, so forget about grabbing a pizza for lunch.

The pizzerias that are open at lunchtime in Italy tend to be the ones with modern stainless-steel pizza ovens. I had lunch at one such pizzeria in Bologna last month. Two of us tried to share a pie, but the waitress insisted they were individual-size pizzas. So we were more or less forced to order two pizzas. The combinations all had names, and there was no "pick your own ingredients" option.

I got one with ham and anchovies, and while the flavors were wonderful, I wasn't all that impressed with the crust. It was soggy in the middle. The pies came to the table on a steel pizza pan, uncut. Italians don't eat pizza with their hands, they use a knife and fork. So we did too (when in Bologna...). And when we were full, we each had half a pizza left. There were no to-go boxes either.

At Dolce Vita, you have to get used to some of these irritating Italian customs. There is only one small size of pizza which comes to your table uncut. You can eat it with a knife and fork, cut it into wedges and then pick it up with your hands, or send it back and tell the kitchen to cut it for you. At least they will pack up your unfinished pizza to go.

There are some traditional Italian pizzas, like the aforementioned margherita; the marinara with nothing but tomato, garlic and oregano; and the romana with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and anchovies. And then there are some combinations of ingredients that are inspired, yet bizarre. How about leeks and pancetta with cheese, or tomato, shaved fennel and bottarga (dried fish roe), or albacore, tomato, red onion and chiles? The Italian option of getting an egg on top is also offered.

For antipasti, the restaurant offers separate sections of vegetables, meats, fish and salads. On my first visit, I tried roasted Sicilian cauliflower, a bowl of the vegetables tossed with chopped raisins and parsley in a light dressing. It was one of the most interesting cauliflower preparations I've ever seen. And then I had sauteed mushrooms with mint served in a bowl lined with ricotta rosa, a kind of premium ricotta often used in pastries -- another stunning combination of flavors.

On another visit, I tried shaved Brussels sprouts in a coleslaw-like salad with pecorino cheese, an awesome combination. Roasted beets with horseradish and walnuts was a hearty winter salad, served in a simple white bowl. At some point, I had to ask myself: How does this guy do it? Where does Marco Wiles come up with unique food ideas like this?

A little research revealed that his inspiration comes not from Italy, but from Mario Batali. In fact, if you want to engage in an amusing exercise, pick up a to-go menu at Dolce Vita, then visit www.menupages.com and pull up the menu of Batali's Otto Enoteca and Pizzeria at One 5th Avenue in New York.

If you read the menus of the two restaurants side by side, you will notice some striking similarities. Both have antipasti formats with separate sections for the verdura, carne, and pesce. They even have some of the exact same vegetable items, like the Sicilian roasted cauliflower and an anchovy-and-garlic dip called bagna cauda. Saba, a traditional Italian dressing made with grape must reduction, also appears on both menus, as do beets and mushrooms. On his innovative "Pizza Otto" menu, Batali has a fenne-and-bottarga pizza and another with taleggio. His "Classica Pizza" menu features marinara, margherita and romana.

I am thrilled for the most part to get a chance to eat Mario Batali-inspired Italian-American food in Houston. But it is worth noting that the eccentric pizzeria called Otto hasn't gotten the same kind of critical acclaim that Batali's flagship, Babbo, rates.

"Otto has average pizzas, good pizzas, excellent pizzas and odd pizzas," according to The New York Times, which gave the restaurant two out of a possible four stars. To his credit, Wiles has learned from some of Batali's mistakes, especially by cooking the pizza in a hot brick oven instead of on a griddle, as Batali does at Otto.

There are plenty of quasi-traditional Italian restaurants in Houston, so it's refreshing to see Batali-style Italian food here, or at least a good imitation of it. After a shaky start at Otto, Batali changed the concept to make it less of a pizzeria and offer more pastas. I suspect Marco Wiles will make similar adjustments at Dolce Vita.

None of the pastas on Dolce Vita's menu resembled the ones I saw on Otto's, and all of them were wonderful. The spaghetti with clams and ceci was a garlicky plate of spaghetti with whole clams in their shells and garbanzo beans, one of the best plates of spaghetti and clams I've ever had -- and this isn't even clam country.

The potato-based gnocchi were fluffy and light and served in a simple ragu. Paccheri with tomato, basil and reggiano was a simple, elegant dish of the oversize tube pasta we used to call "sewer pipes" in my youth, topped with lots of tomato sauce, basil and parmesan. I got the nightly special on my final visit -- an order of meatballs topped with arugula and parmesan. I playfully put one of my meatballs in the bowl with my dining companion's tomato-sauce-covered paccheri. This is as close to spaghetti and meat balls as Marco Wiles is ever going to get, I told her.

Dolce Vita has only been open a month and a half, and while it still has a few bugs to work out, the place is already on the short list for the best new restaurants of 2006. What a joy to have a smart, fun place to eat affordable Italian food in Houston.

One of the kinks they need to iron out is bad timing on the part of the waitstaff. In Italy, the waiter wouldn't think of bringing your pasta to the table while you were still eating your antipasti. There is a set order of service -- first antipasti, then pasta or soup, and afterwards a second plate of meat or fish. You can add a pizza or a salad or whatever you like, and the waiter will make sure that you get to enjoy each course at a leisurely pace before the next arrives.

On my first visit to Dolce Vita, we were seated downstairs at the high-visibility line of tables set uncomfortably close together by the bar. Thank god the table next to ours was empty, because our waiter delivered every single item we ordered at the same time. And there was no way that two vegetable antipasti bowls, a large wooden cutting board loaded with sliced mortadella, a pizza, a salad, and the plate of pasta were all going to fit on the little-bitty table for two we had been crammed into.

The waiter had to use the table next to ours to make room for all that food. My dining companion was mortified by the stares we got from the wine sippers around us. We must have looked like quite the pigs.

On two subsequent visits, I ate upstairs in the dining room and very carefully spelled out the order in which I wanted the food delivered. And both times, I was rushed anyway. The pastas arrived before we were done with the appetizers. And twice I had to wolf my pizza because the busboy took away the pizza plate as soon as I picked up the last slice.

Somebody needs to explain the concept of "slow food" to Dolce Vita's overeager waitstaff. The food is too good here for the hurry-up-and-eat vibe you get as soon as you sit down.

The sweet life can't be rushed.

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