On Santa Monica Boulevard, a little Italian restaurant, La Dolce Vita “The Sweet Life” sits unassumingly since 1966. While outwardly it’s unremarkable, inside it is the keeper of stories of some of Hollywood’s most notorious characters. Restored to it’s original glory during a 7 month hiatus, owner Alessandro Uzielli, clearly passionate about this rare treasure, resurrected the decor and menu that contributed to its previous success.
Walk through those doors and you’ll hear “Welcome home.” Ruben Castro, La Dolce Vita’s 40 year maitre’d, is a delight from the moment you arrive; greeting you like you’re family. The staff follow his lead, beckoning you to your table, anticipating everything you need before you even know you need it.
Once seated, you can see by the photo’s adorning the walls that it once regularly hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, & Don Rickles, among others.
Sit at one of it’s fourteen tables and you may be sitting in the same
chair once occupied by the Reagan’s, Jackie Gleason, Gregory Peck, the Bloomingdale’s, Douglas’s or any U.S.President since the Kennedy administration. Ruben smiled knowingly as he relayed that at our particular booth had once sat Howard Hughes.
We settled in, soaking up the ambiance and Ruben’s charm, waiting in excited anticipation. We were in “Rat pack” territory and their spirit was evident in every corner including the soothing tones of Sinatra playing in the background.
Courtesy of our host, after a wine was chosen an assortment of appetizers began arriving. The food put us on a cumulative high, as each item got better and better. We were hard pressed to choose a favorite among the roasted pepper, gorgonzola ravioli, baked clams oreganata, & chopped Italian salad that was presented to us. They were all equally wonderful. The food is an event to be enjoyed, encompassing all of your senses. Like the finest wines, you breathe in the aroma and detect just the right amounts of spices. The silence was almost spiritual as we found ourselves closing our eyes to experience the first bite, savoring all
the flavors. The pride and love put into every morsel is omnipresent in each dish.
As we basked in the afterglow of our dinner, superb wine filled our glasses & disappeared just as quickly. We lost ourselves in stories of La Dolce Vita’s rich Holywood history, told eagerly by Ruben, it’s most loyal resident & self appointed caretaker. He even told us the tale behind the Cadillac Frank Sinatra gave him. As he speaks, you can see in his eyes and facial expressions, the genuine love he has for those bygone days and all the generations that have since passed through those doors.When asked about the pictures adorning the walls, he lovingly points out in which booth it was taken and if there was a story behind it.
After a phenomenal meal and a sampling of the finest array of desserts we’d ever seen or tasted, we asked Ruben if we could have our picture taken with him. He quickly ran back into the kitchen, re-emerging with a giant ‘Mad Men’ poster. “This will be great for the picture, right?”, he said laughing. He is truly a joy to listen to and the experience was only enhanced by his presence. He is as much a part of the La Dolce Vita story as the building itself.
When we finally left, saying our goodbyes to several members of the staff who waved to us as if we were family, I could not help but think of my dad and how much he would’ve loved it there. Like many others from the baby boomer generation, Frank Sinatra, the ‘Rat Pack’ and the era that La Dolce Vita represent, stand out fondly in my memory. The days felt longer, people seemed friendlier and the worst thing you had to fear was not getting home before your mom called you for dinner. In an age where nearly everything is available instantaneously, it’s comforting to know there’s still a place like this where you can go and the world slows down, if only for just a little while. You can walk through those doors and be among friends. Sit down, share some great wine, food & conversation. If you’re really lucky, maybe Ruben will tell you a story or two.