Cafe Reviews

Dolce Vita Italian Grocer Offers a True Taste of Italy

Dolce Vita Italian Grocer is what happens when gelato makers turn their attention to Italy's more savory food. Where pastas are equally as luscious, cheeses and cured meats just as intensely flavorful, and sandwiches as deserving of slow and thoughtful roll-over-the-tongue tastes as the Italian sweet treat — minus the frosted pastel cup.

And (bonus) the gelato is right next door.

The seven-month-old Italian grocery and deli in east Mesa is the creation of Walter and Marti Bergamaschi, owners of the adjoining Gelato Dolce Vita, which has a second location at the SanTan Village mall in Gilbert. The couple moved to the Valley (and opened their gelato shop) in 2006 from Walter's hometown of Bergamo, Italy, a city just northeast of Milan at the foot of the Italian Alps.

"I was desperate for the food I was accustomed to," Walter says. "Ninety-nine percent of what we sell and use here is imported from Italy. The other 1 percent," he jokes, "is the mistake of the supplier."

The Bergamaschis' penchant for premium ingredients is what makes their grocery (if you're shopping) and Northern Italian-based eatery (if you're dining in) so distinctive. A place of quality over quantity and straightforward preparation that makes nearly every dish memorable enough to come back for or, if you're so inclined, purchase its components and prepare at home.

Boutique pastas, olive oil, and balsamic vinegars (one priced at a staggering $180) as well as marmalades, honeys, truffle salt, and cookies fill wooden shelves lining the walls. The deli counter holds a handful of homemade pastas and around 50 imported cheeses and cured meats — some rarely seen in the Valley. You could do worse than give in to a taste of Ubriacone, notable for its dark purple stripes of wine and covering of grape leaves; the assertive cheese of pure sheep's milk, Pecorino di Fossa; or the creamy, labor-intensive sottocenere, laced with black truffle. And Bergamaschi tells me he may be the only one in the state to offer guanciale, the delicate and seductively porky unsmoked Italian bacon made from pig's cheeks.

Utilizing their next-door gelato shop's limited kitchen means the Bergamaschis' menu is restricted to pastas, sandwiches, and a few salads and antipasto offerings. Not such a bad thing when you consider nearly every one of them leaves little to be dissatisfied about. And the Northern Italian cooking style means more butter and meat, fewer tomatoes in the sauce, and lots of ravioli. Should you desire more selection, there are specials listed at the entrance: pillowy pumpkin and mascarpone ravioli, the fried rice balls called arancini made by a Sicilian friend of the Bergamaschis, or homemade sfogliatelle, the delectably light and flaky shell-shaped pastries filled with creamy ricotta kissed with orange. Most can be had at the table, packed for the ride home, or perhaps a little of both.

But if you're staying for a meal, don't forget to bring the vino. Dolce Vita's exceptional dishes nearly demand it, and at this Italian eatery, it's BYOB.

You could start with the classic bruschetta, which is just about as simple and fresh as classic bruschetta can get — with bright tomatoes, basil, and cubes of tender mozzarella drizzled in extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and placed upon garlic-rubbed toasted bread. More interesting and just as flavorful is the bresaola, in which several paper-thin slices of air-cured beef — imagine a texture like prosciutto but with a sharp and slightly earthy taste — encircle an arugula salad lightly dressed with olive oil and strewn with nutty chunks of Parmesan.

And if your dining party includes a cheese aficionado or two, you'll want to treat the table to the piatto formaggi. A plate featuring six selections of the Bergamaschis' top-notch Italian cheeses paired with marmalades and honeys from the Italian Alps, this tasting journey comes with instructions: Start with the mildest and work your way around the plate to the center, where the most intensely flavored cheese awaits.

Dolce Vita's nine Italian sandwiches may be the best example of how just a few of its first-rate ingredients can turn a simple grinder into a highly satisfying endeavor that doesn't rely upon size to pack a punch. One of those ingredients, the French baguette, is the foundation of eight of these sandwiches. After several failed attempts to find an acceptable baguette in the Valley, Walter began importing them from France. Served on small wooden cutting boards, the crispy-crusted bread expertly pairs with scrumptious smoked prosciutto, slightly sweet and nutty asiago cheese, and arugula (the Dolomiti); spicy sopressata and salty pecorino (the Calabrese); and delicate parmacotto ham, giardiniera, and bold Italian provolone (the Contadino) for three of the best sandwiches in the bunch.

If the deli has a specialty, it's the homemade pasta. Marti, who makes it, says it's easy but requires a fair amount of patience. There are four marked in blue on the menu. Three are raviolis, lusciously soft cushions filled with delights such as fresh vegetables, herbs, and savory beef. The ricotta and spinach, drizzled in a silky butter and sage sauce, is the most delicious of the lot — that is, if the heady garlic and butter variety isn't available on the specials board. The fourth, the cavatelli, is stiffer, like small gnocchi, and is best sauced with a modest amount of sunny marinara and sprinkled with fresh shavings of Parmesan.

Conveniently enough, dessert is just a few steps away, where the Bergamaschi's passion for fresh ingredients translates to over twenty rotating varieties of small-batch gelato. They range from stracciatella (like chocolate chip, but smoother and with tiny bits of crunchy chocolate), nicciola (hazelnut), and mascarpone to passion fruit, strawberry, and (my favorite) a highly refreshing lemoncello.

Whatever the Bergamaschis are doing with Dolce Vita Italian Grocer seems to be resonating with the area's Italian-Americans — many of whom can be seen enjoying a meal and watching Italian TV at one of the deli's tables topped with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, a pot of flowers, and paper placemats showing a map of Italy. But the couple tells me getting some of the American customers to understand why the pastas don't arrive loaded with sauce and cheese, why the sandwiches aren't twice their size, and why they don't have a pepperoni pizza on the menu, has been more an educational process.

"This isn't American Italian food," Walter explains. "This is food from Italy."

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld