There was quite a bit of buzz about Dolce de Palma when it opened last spring — everybody I ran into wanted to shove me against a wall and yak into my ear about Anthony de Palma's new paninoteca. De Palma had opened Dolce in a frighteningly eccentric location — tucked behind the railroad tracks alongside a canal, in a warehouse district on Old Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach. It was the kind of real estate that would have had backers and moneymen sweating into their Brooks Brothers; only de Palma was on his own and risking nothing more than his own butt. The restaurant was the single bright little beacon on a gloomy, deserted street, rough enough that there were bits of rebar and piles of dirt in his minuscule parking lot.
Still, de Palma wasn't entirely crazy. Dolce was close to Flamingo Park, probably the wealthiest neighborhood in West Palm, so it had a good chance of drawing people with money and appetites. It was hidden enough that you practically had to follow a treasure map to get there, but its removed locale gave the restaurant an insidery, exclusive air, like those unmarked, unlisted bars in Manhattan. And then it was doing weird stuff like opening at 5:30 in the morning for breakfast, dishing up paninis and gelato for lunch until 4, and serving dinner Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. It was mostly the dinner everybody was talking about (not that those lunch paninis weren't delicious), particularly the homemade pastas and a small wine list of intriguing bottles.
We stopped in for dinner shortly after they opened in early summer and had a surprisingly inept meal. I don't know what was up, but the place was near empty on a Thursday night — I think there was just one other occupied table — and pretty much every dish we had was a wash. The worst of it was the short ribs ($17.95) with orzo, braised escarole, artichokes, and "smoked oven-dried tomatoes"; they tasted like somebody had poured about half a bottle of liquid smoke into the sauce. We also had a bland risotto cake appetizer ($9.95) with escargots that didn't impress my snail-loving partner and a forgettable ricotta pastiere ($6.95) for dessert. We folded our napkins and left wondering what all the fuss was about.
Clearly, the new restaurant hadn't quite gotten its act together. But our experience must have been a fluke. We kept hearing raves. Six months later, Dolce has so established itself as a neighborhood favorite that it's tough to get a dinner reservation on weekends. We did score one recently and found that de Palma had expanded by setting up tables in a little outdoor courtyard — they were all full at 8:30, and the space inside, which holds only a few dozen diners, was nearly full too. The restaurant itself is darling, simple and intimate, very European in mood — there's an open kitchen where battered old pots and frying pans hang above the work stations, a gelateria near the front door, and tables set with white cloths and candles in a mirrored back room. This time, we had a marvelous meal.
And I do mean marvelous in the sense of something to marvel over. With the economy in the dumps, we could use more restaurants like Dolce: Rather than slavishly following the conventional wisdom for economic-doldrums dining (cookie-cutter American comfort food, fast-casual), de Palma has created a unique experience — selling homemade gourmet Italian cuisine in a bistro setting at prices that will keep the house full and regular customers returning. No entrée is more than $23; no bottle of wine costs more than $45 (and most are in the mid-20s to mid-30s). Add a level of personal service that makes every customer feel soothed and cosseted — de Palma makes a point of stopping by every table, and the waitresses are professional, courteous, and well-informed — and you've got a recipe that'll rise, soufflé-like, over any yawning recession.
Particularly when you consider what you get at these reasonable prices. The menu changes nightly with very few repetitions. De Palma has been known to roast whole suckling pig some nights; we found black-tip shark "gouganette" on the menu ($19) served with crab polenta and coriander/miso/truffle oil sauces. There were appetizers like handmade grilled merguez sausages with arugula and yogurt ($10), a wild mushroom and fennel tart with goat cheese fondant ($7), and a caesar salad whimsically presented by running the whole romaine leaves through a cored heirloom tomato and scattering the plate with potato-bread croutons ($8). He clearly loves to invent new recipes: A pasta called "chef's whim" ($21 for a full order) turned out to be the most beautiful gnocchi I've ever seen — fat, gorgeous, inch-wide cubes flecked with fresh thyme and rosemary and served with tiny, spicy, veal sweetbread sausages. It was a knockout.
We also ate a tender and succulent chicken involtini ($19): chicken breasts pounded thin and rolled around a savory filling of portabella mushrooms, sliced into rounds and served with a sauce of harissa and sun-dried tomatoes; this dish was supposed to be served with rapini, but they were out of it (we got asparagus instead). The only entrée we didn't much care for was a grilled sirloin steak ($23); I liked the pickled red cabbage slaw and shiitake mushrooms, bracing and sour, that came with it, but the steak itself was tough and flavorless.
The charm, of course, is that you never know exactly what you're in for at Dolce de Palma. There was a veal and butternut squash ragu that looked interesting, but I may never see it again, or the gemelli with turkey meatballs, spinach, and garlic cream sauce. A few of the dishes recur: the house salad with lupini beans, the antipasti platter of cured meats, and the noodles with a Bolognese sauce made from some combination of grass-fed, house-ground beef, farm raised-cinghiale (boar), and San Marzano tomatoes. And from what friends have told me, the short ribs — much improved — are often on the menu, and they're by all accounts divine.
There are always the beautiful gelatos for dessert, but we chose a silky vanilla panna cotta flavored with cardamom and coriander ($6.95), served with a crisp waffle cookie — so delicate it quivered on the spoon — and affogato, gelato "drowned" with cinnamon liqueur, cream, and espresso. And we sat for a long time over our $45 bottle of Barbera d'Alba, savoring the delicious bargain.
De Palma owns another Dolce in North Palm Beach, serving just breakfast and lunch, but he confided that he may close it soon and devote himself full-time to the restaurant in Flamingo Park. He also said he doubts he can continue to work from 5 a.m. till midnight, so he may soon stop serving breakfasts. He'll evidently keep making adjustments to the business until he has a plan that'll support him without breaking his back. Work to be happy in.
If anything positive comes out of this terrible economy, it'll be a correction in long-inflated South Florida menu prices; we're starting to see the check already. I'm hoping more restaurateurs will consider doing just what de Palma has done: dispense with the million-dollar interiors and the $18 martinis and just start serving good food to their good neighbors. The restaurant biz has been in its own bubble — people have been gambling and making fortunes. Maybe it's time they started making an honest living instead.