I don’t know how you approach a restaurant review, as a reader, but before I started this blog the first thing I did was check whether I knew the place being reviewed. If I didn’t, the whole process was a voyage of discovery, reading the review thinking Does it sound like my kind of thing? Could I get there? Would I want to? But when I’d already been to the restaurant in question it was a very different test involving a different set of questions which all boil down to one: Do you agree with me? And, of course, we all judge on that basis. I like people who like the things I like, just like everybody else.
This is especially the case when the reviewer has gone to a place you really like, one of your favourite places. Then you feel protective and read the review thinking I hope the restaurant don’t have an off night, or even The reviewer had better not pick on it. One of the things really successful restaurants do is make customers into loyal customers, and make those loyal customers feel like part of a club. At its best, it’s a tribal thing: look at the incredible loyalty inspired by Mya Lacarte, or Tutti Frutti.
Dolce Vita, I think, is another of those places. I’ve had a lot of people telling me I should go there – enthusing about the food and the service, saying that they return again and again. So, if you’re one of those loyal customers, reading this and preparing to bristle protectively on Dolce Vita’s behalf, you can relax: I really liked it.
Of course, you might approach restaurant reviews by going straight to the end and reading the rating first, in which case you already know that and are waiting for me to get on with it (I understand: I ruin some novels that way too).
Despite knowing Dolce Vita by reputation I’ve rarely gone there. It’s another restaurant that feels like it’s always been there, in Kings Walk, perched on that ledge above the outer reaches of the Oracle looking out over all the changes that have happened over the years (personally, I’ve tried to erase all memory of Brannigan’s, with its chilling boasts of “cavorting”). Yet it’s never really crossed my mind when deciding where to eat, because I just couldn’t remember if it was any good; a strange type of amnesia I don’t get about many places in Reading.
The dining room’s big, a long rectangular airy space with lots of light from the skylight and the patio doors leading out onto the balcony. I can imagine that, if the sun ever comes out for long enough, the balcony would be a lovely place to drink rose and eat summery food but there was no chance of that on this visit: it was wet and windy so we grabbed a table by the window and looked out at the rain-spattered furniture, daydreaming about what might have been. Speaking of furniture, this isn’t something most restaurant reviews talk about (maybe with good reason) but Dolce Vita has some of the most handsome dining furniture in Reading: solid oak chairs and tables that make some of the wobbly painted tables in otherwise good restaurants seem rather cheap.
The menu is huge, and makes no pretence at being anything else. You are handed a sheet of A3 and left to wonder how a kitchen can do all of those dishes well. It also feels like a mismatch – there are pizzas and pasta, unsurprisingly, but also several Thai dishes, a couple of Greek dishes (which may have found a home here after Kyklos, Dolce Vita’s sister restaurant closed down in January) and, randomly, a Scotch egg. This all gave me misgivings but I decided to stick to Italian and hope for the best.
The burrata suggested I’d done the right thing. It always looks like a little bag of treasure to me and so it proved, creamy and fresh, well matched by the grilled peppers and aubergines. The whole thing was brought together with a very nice tomato, chilli and mint sauce and worked very well. I did find myself wishing, though, that the vegetables had been freshly grilled and still warm rather than chilled. It was a nice dish, but didn’t involve much in the way of cooking.
The antipasti was a very similar story, a great assortment of salami, pleasingly dry and savoury Parma ham, coppa and mortadella, along with some mozzarella, sundried tomato and two dips, an aioli with a hint of citrus and a very good tzatziki (oh, and some baguette – Did I forget to mention the baguette?) If that makes it sound like a lot of food that’s because it was. In hindsight, for a tenner, it was probably meant to serve two although the menu didn’t make that clear – none the less it was excellent stuff.
The mains were nicely timed, turning up just at the point when I was ready. The Milan pizza – mozzarella, Italian sausage, wild mushrooms, caramelised onions, fontina and Grana Padano – was recommended by the waitress which made the selection process that bit easier. It makes such a difference going to a restaurant where the staff know what their dishes are and are prepared to state a preference, and that was pretty symptomatic of the excellent service in Dolce Vita in general (I also got great recommendations for wine and, later, for dessert). The pizza base was close to perfect – thin enough to be crisp but with enough thickness to have some flavour of its own and not just feel like transport for cheese and tomato. The Italian sausage was excellent, coarse and herby almost to the point of being fragrant and I loved the caramelised onion with the cheeses. For my taste I thought there were too many mushrooms but that’s probably just me.
If the pizza was good, the veal saltimbocca was great. It was a generous portion of veal, three good-sized pieces, wrapped in Parma ham and perfectly done. The sauce promised Marsala but I didn’t get any of that, just lemon, white wine and lashings of sage: perfection. In any case, Marsala would have made the whole thing too sweet. Similarly, the truffled mash turned up without a hint of truffle and again, I didn’t mind. Too many flavours would have made the dish a mess, instead of the simple classic I got. The French beans, however, did turn up buttered as promised: a lovely contrast to many restaurants, even good ones, that dish up bland and naked vegetables. All that was seventeen pounds – not cheap, but I’ve spent that much on many worse dishes in Reading.
The wine, also recommended by the waitress, was a bottle of Montepulciano. I’m no oenophile, which is pretty obvious from my reviews, but I like to kid myself that I got plummy red fruit and a touch of black pepper. Even if I’m wrong, it was dangerously drinkable at just under eighteen pounds (and again, hats off to the waitress for recommending one of their cheapest reds: no sneaky upselling here).
Considering I visited on a weeknight, the restaurant was surprisingly full and buzzy with a real mixture of groups – dates and birthday parties and business dinners, all equally at home. I also heard some Italian being spoken at one table which I took to be a good sign. The service was just excellent all evening, which is something I’ve always heard about Dolce Vita; I felt like I got five star treatment but watching other diners and seeing the easy way the serving staff chatted to them all, it was obvious that everyone else was getting it too.
When you’re having an evening that pleasant it’s a shame to leave without having dessert, so we gave the kitchen another chance to impress. The caramel and Baileys bread and butter pudding (again, recommended by the waitress) was divine. Rich and sticky, studded with sultanas and served with a light vanilla custard, it was a trademark example of those upmarket school dinner puddings I’m so partial to. I couldn’t detect the Baileys and the caramel notes, if they were truly there, were subtle to a fault but even so it was a great way to end the meal. Well, that and a small glass of sweet, fresh Sauternes. The other dessert – Dolce Vita’s hazelnut praline tiramisu – might be my favourite tiramisu in Reading, and I’ve tried a lot. A nice firm slab of indulgence, not too big, with a little layer of crunchy praline hidden inside like a bonus feature. Almost unimprovable (although I did have a go by pairing it with a glass of vin santo).
The total bill for two, for three courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses of dessert wine was ninety pounds – not cheap (although we did have a lot of food) but nothing felt like poor value. I think at least some of that is down to the service, which was up there with any town centre restaurant I’ve been to.
Like I said at the start, if you’re a fan of Dolce Vita you can relax – I had a great evening there. I still have misgivings about the frightening size of their menu (there was also a specials menu adding another set of bewildering options – including roast chicken pie – to the mix) and I’d probably stick to what I know they do well, but on the night I went they didn’t put a foot wrong, and they did it without any of the experience ever seeming mechanical. By the end, I found myself thinking that it would be so easy to come here on another evening later in the year, sit on that patio, soak up the last of the sunshine, have a few beers and a pizza and leave having spent less than twenty pounds. And if the summer ever comes, there’s a strong possibility that you’ll find me there one evening, doing exactly that.
Dolce Vita – 7.6
Kings Walk, RG1 2HL