Fort Lauderdale beach restaurant La Dolce Vita was named for Italian director Federico Fellini's intricate, three-hour, 1960 masterpiece of the same name.
But the place is deceptively simple.
The movie was set among Roman landmarks and followed a journalist's hopeless search for passion and romance while covering a Swedish-American celebrity's jaunt through the Italian capital. The three Italians who own Fort Lauderdale's 70-seat "Sweet Life" — chef Renato Polidori, Christian D'Amore, and Fabio Bruni — eschew that complexity. Inside La Dolce Vita, there is no copy of Michelangelo's towering statue of David or a reincarnation of his Sistine Chapel frescoes.
"Authentic Italian doesn't mix many ingredients," Polidori says on the phone in a thick Italian accent. "Just two or three that fit."
No dish on La Dolce Vita's two-page menu proves it's possible to draw incredible flavor from limited ingredients better than cacio e pepe. Translated, the name means "cheese and pepper," and that's all there is to it. Toothsome spaghetti is tossed in pasta water, cracked black pepper, and Parmesan cheese. The warm water melts the rich, salty cheese, creating a luscious sauce that has a hint of bite and spice.
The restaurant's décor is also simpler than expected. Cherry wood chairs surround tables draped with white and burgundy tablecloths. Each is set with matching burgundy napkins and oversized red wineglasses. Servers echo Bruni's nostalgic sentiment of a bygone era as they gracefully navigate the small space replying "perfecto, grazie" to every order and "prego" after each thank you.
While the name is perhaps overused, Bruni says the trio picked it because "it's happiness in a restaurant."
"It's my favorite movie," he says, "and for me, it's very nostalgic."
Black-and-white Fellini stills, which Bruni brought with him from his now-closed restaurant in Italy, hang high on the walls inside the intimate space.
Though the whole of the menu isn't quite as simple as the cacio e pepe, Polidori never allows flavors to muddle. The prices may seem steep considering the surrounding beach bars, but the attentive service that's there when you need it, gone when you don't, along with heaping bowls of homemade, square spaghetti pasta called "chitarrina" make La Dolce Vita a delightful place to get your Italian fix.
That house-made pasta comes in a variety of preparations: with a black truffle cream sauce and porcini mushrooms, with clams and sun-dried tomatoes, or in a simple sauce of slow-cooked veal with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
The signature dish is chitarrina "La Dolce Vita," which pairs the pasta with shrimp, clams, and mussels in a fresh tomato sauce prepared à la minute and brightened with a splash of Pinot Grigio. For the uninitiated, La Dolce Vita's tomato sauces will seem a world away from the heavy, slow-cooked variety most often found in the U.S.
"Whenever I make a sauce, I always mix it with a fresh cherry tomato sauce to make it lighter," Polidori says. "Americans think it needs a lot of garlic, but that's not true."
The trio's dream of serving food similar to what they grew up with began when Polidori, who hails from Italy's Abruzzo region, northeast of Rome, met Bruni and D'Amore in 2010. At the time, Polidori was working at La Lupa Di Roma, an Italian restaurant on Lincoln Road. Bruni, who also comes from Abruzzo, and D'Amore, who was raised in Rome, were working at a pizzeria in downtown Miami.
"Fabio is from my town, and I knew he was working there, so I went to meet him," Polidori says.
They immediately began looking for a place and chose Fort Lauderdale because Miami Beach "was a little chaotic."
Bruni says he first fell in love with Fort Lauderdale while vacationing here and later moved here after meeting the woman who would become his wife. He describes himself as no fan of the heavy, "mixed" Italian food found throughout Broward.
"We don't do alfredo, and we don't do chicken parmigiana," he says. "We don't do 200 people a night. but when people come here, they're getting real Italian."
Indeed, it would be almost impossible for some of the seemingly simple dishes to grab anyone's attention in the cacophony of South Beach. However, a salad of tender roasted artichoke hearts mixed with egg and pecorino cheese plays perfectly against a bed of bitter arugula and deserves recognition.
Diners who love the rich, creamy sauces of Italian-American food can get their fix with polenta al tartufo. A warm disk of yellow cornmeal is topped with an earthy, almost-too-rich sauce made with cream, flecks of black truffles, wild mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese. A server effortlessly wielding two spoons in one hand splits the appetizer in two and gracefully places each half onto smaller plates. Any remaining sauce is quickly mopped up with crusts of the chewy, house-made bread that starts each meal.
Simplicity resumes in a thick-cut veal chop seasoned with salt, pepper, and rosemary, then simply grilled to a perfect medium rare. Each bite is juicy, though the small bits of fat that come with such a cut of meat might be displeasing to some. Additionally the cubed roasted potatoes that accompany the meat, and many other dishes on the menu, are overcooked and dry. Some are too tough to pierce with a fork.
With so many Italian restaurants across Fort Lauderdale and South Florida, it can be dizzying to separate the good from the bad. Some elements of La Dolce Vita, such as the name and its location among beachside dives, are suspicious at first glance.
Yet inside the quaint restaurant is something far too rare for Fort Lauderdale. Its owners care less about buzzy food trends and guessing what people want and more about offering the timeless flavors and dishes they've been cooking and eating all their lives.