Dolce Italian arrived in Chicago this spring with the distinction of being the second incarnation of a Miami restaurant that was named the best new restaurant in America on a Bravo reality program called Best New Restaurant. (A more appropriate title might’ve been Best New Restaurant in America of the 16 We Convinced to Be on This Show, but that’s not terribly snappy.) I didn’t watch nor had I heard of BNR—my food-related reality-TV attention remains fixed on the real garbage like Mystery Diners and Bar Rescue—but from what I gather it differs from other competition shows of its ilk in that it takes into account every aspect of a restaurant’s operations, so not just the chef and her food, but the service, the management, and the overall dining experience.
A reality-TV victory isn’t an unimpressive laurel to rest on, but you have to wonder about the savvy involved in opening another nostalgia-tinged Italian joint in River North, the gurgling, engorged belly of Chicago’s Italian-food beast.
Unless the show’s loyalists exist in multitudes I’m unaware of, I imagine Dolce Italian’s owners are relying to some extent on its placement on the ground floor of the Godfrey Hotel and the steady supply of monied midwestern tourists and business people that guarantees. In fact, an exchange we had with the bartender when my dining companion ordered a Campari cocktail called the Americano suggested that’s what the clientele has consisted of so far. To paraphrase our end: Yes, we’ve had Campari before, so you don’t have to worry that we’re going to squinch up our faces and send back the drink because it’s “too bitter.” In fact, the Americano, which also featured sweet vermouth and club soda, was simple and refreshing. So was the Pineapple Express, made with white tequila, pineapple juice, and a peppery jalapeño-cilantro syrup. Call me old-fashioned or poor or whatever, but I haven’t quite adjusted to $14 being the going rate for a cocktail in the neighborhood.
The design channels the midcentury feel the menu intends to capture without relying on cliches. The dining room is scattered with orange leather Eames-looking chairs with contrasting leather-reinforced arm rests, taller versions of which stand at the bar. The drop ceiling’s geometric pattern is mirrored in the design of the parquet floors. It’s all very nice to look at, and there are lots of very nice people to tend to your whims, unless they include ordering your food piecemeal; when I attempted to order a Caesar salad while we decided on the rest of our meal, the server said the kitchen prefers it if the entire order comes in at once. And what if we want more food later? Eh, I didn’t ask.
People who watched the show may have trouble reconciling the food presented to Tom Colicchio and the other judges on BNR with what’s on offer here. Bravo posted on its website the menu that won Dolce Italian the championship bout against New York City’s L’Apicio, and it’s significantly more creative (house-made rabbit paté with hazelnuts and balsamic, duck and foie gras agnolotti, a squid ink and sepia polenta) than anything Dolce is currently serving. They’ve taken a decidedly populist approach: Neapolitan-style pizzas, house-made pasta, entrees like veal scaloppini and roast chicken. The aforementioned Caesar was chopped beyond recognition and absolutely drenched in a creamy dressing (I never learn my lesson about these things). We busied ourselves instead with the bread course, a combination of thin slices of airy, chewy Italian bread and delicious, crispy Parmesan-and-garlic-seasoned olive oil flatbread, served with a cream-cheese-thick house-made ricotta sprinkled with black pepper and drizzled with honey.
We ordered the wing-dingiest of the pizzas, the “Sunday gravy,” which features slices of dense and fennel-rich meatballs and hatefully spicy fresh jalapeños. The bottom of the pie performed the incredible feat of staying crisp and not succumbing to the liquidity of the sauce and melted cheese. A perfectly serviceable Neapolitan pie for $16, and big enough to share between two or three people. The ricotta cavatelli were soft, dense, and filling, like mini gnocchi. The lamb ragu was unremarkable, but the dish’s prospects were improved by a bed of garlicky, crisp broccoli rabe. Full as we were, we skipped the secondi and went straight to dessert, an affogato that could have used a much bigger scoop of vanilla gelato if it was meant to be edible with a spoon for longer than 15 seconds.
Had the Bravo program that handed Dolce an honor had been called Good New Restaurants, I might be able to get behind that assessment. But as it is, Dolce Italian isn’t even the best new Italian restaurant in River North.