You know a South Beach restaurant is a hit when it attracts the kind of nightlife veterans who insist that there's a better table than the one they're about to be seated at.
Such was the scene Saturday night at Dolce Italian inside the vintage 1941 Gale South Beach. The handsome restaurant is split level, and we watched as guests ascended up the stairs into the long bunker of a main dining room as they followed a hostess to their assigned table. More than once, we saw those same parties walk back down those stairs only to return minutes later to another table.
I'm not sure if they were after better sight lines, a back corner or a booth. But it's just the kind of request that doesn't frazzle the staff at Dolce. From bartenders to busboys, service is casually excellent.
It helps that there's not a bad seat in the 200-seat house. At night, the place is aglow in gold and brown. Tables are set with white tablecloths and gold water glasses and bread plates. Maybe the wooden floors and walls help absorb the high-volume chatter when Dolce is packed?
It sure is a swanky setting for what is by South Beach standards a reasonably priced restaurant serving simple Italian food. If you don't want to sit in the dining room, Dolce's cafe and patio are ideal spots for sharing a pizza ($14-$16) and cold glasses of Negroni ($5) on draft.
While not every menu item is perfect at Dolce, you get the impression it soon will be. Dolce's owner, LDV Hospitality, oversees 19 restaurants, bars and lounges across the country, including the exquisite Scarpetta inside Fontainebleau Miami Beach.
At Dolce, mozzarella is made in-house and served in either a Caprese ($14) or as part of a platter ($26) of cured meats and pickled vegetables. Heirloom tomato salad ($12) with ricotta salata, shallots and chives spotlights my favorite seasonal South Florida ingredient, but why were these fabulous tomatoes refrigerated?
It's hard to resist pizza after walking by the wood-fired oven near the front of the dining room. And the six-slice Zingara ($15) — topped with spicy salami, peppers, onions and mozzarella — didn't disappoint. It could have used a bit more time in the oven, because I like my crust extra crispy.
From the long list of cold and hot antipasti, we had grilled octopus ($15) served with chickpeas and ginger-pistachio farro. The taste of the grill was offset by the nuttiness of the accompaniment.
We split classic spaghetti and meatballs ($23), which were greasy — not from olive oil, but from the meatballs themselves. A better choice may be simple spaghetti pomodoro ($18), which is the same version served at Scarpetta up the street.
Roasted branzino ($29) arrives with the head cut off and the fish cooked until the skin is crispy and the flesh practically melts. It was served with fingerling potatoes that needed a little more roasting, as well as simple spinach and fresh cherry tomato sauce.
Veal spezzatino ($30) shows off the skills of Italian-born chef Paolo Dorigato, who delivers rich orbs of braised veal set inside a pool of cheesy Parmesan risotto. It's the best homey stew paired with the best Italian rice.
Seeing as where the place is called dolce, sweets seemed appropriate. And the restaurant serves some of the best cannoli ($10) around, with light, crunchy, cone-shaped shells and even lighter filling. I don't think there's any ricotta in this version. The incredible pastry and fresh meringue overshadowed the filling in a Key lime tart ($10). But everything is right with tiramisu ($10).
Some $35 million was spent renovating Gale South Beach. The building was once two hotels, and the old Regent gets its due inside Regent Cocktail Club, a classic, wood-paneled bar and lounge at the back of the building. Upstairs is a pool deck ready for partying.
It's a marvel — three decades after the revival of South Beach began — that there's still a buzz around renovated Art Deco hotels and new restaurants. This one's a beauty.
jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.
1690 Collins Ave., Gale South Beach, Miami Beach