The emailed invitation was short: "Please join me and Nancy at LA DOLCE VITA on Tuesday evening to celebrate the dedication of my father's favorite booth. Tina Sinatra." When Tina beckons, I come without question... so I arrived at the darkly warm, cozy and intimate eatery which had been a home-away-from-home for me when I first moved to L.A. in the '70s. I had been Sammy Davis, Jr.'s publicity guy in the '50s during his "Mr. Wonderful" Broadway days, and we had remained friends until he died, so when I began spending much time here Sammy would take me to La Dolce Vita (9785 Little Santa Monica Blvd, Bev. Hills (310) 278-1845, valet parking after 7 p.m., just east of the junction of Wilshire Blvd. and Santa Monica Blvd.) Sammy, of course, was a charter member of The Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra's coterie of wise guys (Dean Martin, Jilly, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and a few women, especially Angie and Shirley MacLaine). I had the opportunity to observe them from afar and occasionally closeup for many years, as this restaurant became a favorite of the crooner shortly after it opened in 1966. (He had a record-release party here for daughter Nancy when it first opened, to celebrate her song, "These Boots Are Made for Walking.")
A trio of interesting characters were behind the opening of the classic Italian restaurant: George Smith, Jimmy Ullo and the most celebrated actor George Raft. Famed movie set designer Lyle Wheeler created the interior design, with its semi-circular red-tufted leather banquettes, soft lighting and glazed walls. Raft, the epitome of the suave gangster-oriented personality, was there almost every evening in the early years....and his friendship drew the most powerful known and unknown power-players in the city. Studio heads, top agents, industrialists and European stars all gathered here nightly to bask in the celebrity aura without the bother of paparazzi. You may recall that it was Federico Fellini, in his 1960 movie La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life), who gave that name to the hordes of reporters and photographers who swarmed around stars. Not allowed anywhere near these portals, with no windows to the street, and no one in those days had camera phones to snap pictures of unaware celebs. It was a sheltered haven for important people who wanted to unbend and eat in private. And eat they did, a wonderful collection of red-sauce Southern Italian dishes. The Osso Bucco was one of the most popular dishes -- a gnarly-boned hunk of melting veal -- along with the Veal Scallopine and some two dozen pasta dishes. Frank once told me that some of the dishes at La Dolce Vita reminded him of what he ate growing up in Hoboken. His favorites were the Veal Milanese with rigatoni pomodoro, with an Arugula Salad with shaved Parmesan. He would drink a bottle of red Sassicaia if he was with his wife, but when with the guys it was always Daniels on the rocks. (That was Jack Daniels, of course.) Tina's favorite dish is the Roasted Red Peppers with butterflied Italian sausages. When her father's booth was celebrated this night, she asked that another booth be equally marked with Guy McElwaine's name, since he was Frank's agent and was always here with him. "I suspect the two of them are sitting at a table up there right now, throwing back a few every night," she told me. "So this is a perfect tribute, where people can enjoy the company of each other in their honor." We talked about some of the other things which Frank loved, and I mentioned Dunhill's cologne (which I also used) while someone brought up Edelweiss Chocolate's maple pecan creams, and his friend Benson Fong's Ah Fong Chinese place.
Tuesday evening was a wake-up call for me. Why had I forsaken this charming, intimate eatery for greener pastures? Well, there was a long period starting in the '80s when the restaurant scene in L.A. exploded and we all began going to newer places. Raft died and his place fell into the abyss of bad management, although Maitre d' Ruben Castro, who came here in 1972, strove mightily and still does to maintain the standards of food and service which had been its hallmark in the late '60s and '70s. They proudly boasted that you could order any Italian dish in memory and the kitchen would provide it. I once tested them when the Stanley Tucci movie, The Big Night, opened in 1996 and featured a 'bombolini' or huge round stuffed calzone-like pasta as its story point. With a day's notice they proudly served it to my amazed table.
Tonight I greeted Alessandro Uzielli, the youngish auto heir, grandson of Henry Ford II, who bought the restaurant a decade ago and has maintained it in prime condition ever since. Son of Ann Ford and Gianni Uzielli, he discussed with me the fond memories we both have of his father's New York restaurant, Uzie's, on the upper East Side, not far from where I was living while producing "Night of the Juggler." I was rather thoughtless, I'm afraid, when I asked him why he wanted to be in the restaurant business....and he simply stated, "I worked for my father in his restaurant when I was young, and never got over my love for that life, despite my auto heritage. For the past few years I've been here working to bring it into the modern world (electronic accessibility and internet coverage) while not losing the legendary charm and elegance for which we were so famous." I said that I understood....and I did...and then we both turned to greet film producer Jerry Weintraub, who embraced us and said the obvious, "When Tina and Nancy Sinatra call, we come." He and his girlfriend joined Jolene and George Schlatter in the Sinatra booth, in mid-room, with its new brass plaque bearing the singer's name. Next to the booth bearing the 'Reagan' standard and across from George Raft's. Memories flooded into my brain of the 'names' I have seen here over the years, from Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, to Bill Clinton and George Bush. At which point Elliot Gould and Alan Ladd, Jr. came by and we all talked about old times, while I greeted attorneys Bob Finklestein and Patty Glaser. Yes, Tina has long arms.
Which led me to make a date to dine here the next night with friends, since it had been a few years since I ate in the tiny, sophisticated room. Greeted old friend Helen Greco and others at next booth, and settled in for a prodigious meal. One of my companions said that when she dined her in the '70s with her mother, her mom always ordered the Lobster Fra Diavolo ($36), so that was a given. The spaghetti was cooked perfectly, just beyond al dente, with chunks of lobster. I had spotted a dish on the menu, Vongole Oreganate ($21), baked clams topped with crusted oregano and drizzled with a garlic-lemon sauce, and told my companions it was stalwart of my dinner in the '60s at Manhattan's Danny's Hideaway. Delicious starter, as was the Veal Meatballs ($14), succulent orbs in a light tomato sauce. I had memories of the wonderful Italian salad here, called La Dolce Vita Chopped ($15), and it proved to be as good as remembered... seasonal lettuce chopped with salami and cheese, with a delicate house vinaigrette. Just needed another dusting of Parmesan for perfection. Lasagna Bolognese ($25) was a unique version of this classic dish, with its sautéed spinach, ricotta cheese and meat sauce. Eggplant Parmiggiana ($14) was something of a disappointment, but the Risotto with mushrooms and asparagus tips ($26) more than made up for it. This night we enjoyed the pan-seared Mediterranean Branzino ($37), the 8 oz. fileted fish served with sautéed spinach and a lemon-herb sauce. The celebrated Gorgonzola Bread was not available this night, but the warm rolls were more than adequate. My next visit shortly will see me going for the legendary Sand Dabs ($31), egg-battered and pan-seared flat fish topped with a lemon-caper reduction. Other dishes I would recommend include the Steak Sinatra ($42), sliced prime steak with sautéed peppers in a chianti reduction.
At the Tina-Nancy Sinatra reception, I had settled in for a tasting of several dishes, and can recommend the Roasted Rack of Lamb ($46), herb-crusted lamb chops with rosemary au jus. Lovely manager Stephanie Kacandes (a New Jersey girl, as was my mother), said that Thursday nights was Osso Buco time, and that their 16-0z Bistecca ($47), a prime rib eye rubbed with Mediterranea herbs and sea salt, was a perennial favorite. At last night's dinner, we finished with a trio of famous desserts, including the Chocolate Hazelnut Praline Tart, house-made Tiramisu, Vanilla Panna Cotta... and best of all, White Chocolate Tartuffo. The restaurant is closed on Sundays, and is open from 5 p.m. to midnight six days a week. Reservations are recommended, although they will accommodate walk-ins.
La Dolce Vita is a unique, fond reminder of an earlier age, but fortunately its owner has had the foresight to bring it into the digital age. Younger people have found it (last night was table of ten under-thirties who ordered up a storm) and I do think Frank is up there, looking down and smiling as he sips his Daniels.
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