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Dining

Italian shake-up

Caffe Dolce remakes traditional dishes in appealing new ways

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Caffe Dolce’s lasagna.
Photo: Beverly Poppe

One might be tempted to dismiss Caffe Dolce as old wine in a new bottle. Doing so would be a mistake.

So few Italian places bring anything new to the table, but at this comely restaurant—divided into a casual deli and a more formal area complete with trellised plants and a burbling fountain—Dolce owner Giuseppe Bavarese has had the savvy to rethink a host of familiar chestnuts and make them distinctive.

A good example is his lasagna, a multilayered, Emilia-Romagna-style casserole that uses the best veal in its ragu, plus a light but enriching kiss of Béchamel mixed in, which elevates it well above its thick noodle, ricotta and tomato sauce-driven Southern Italian cousin. It’s served in a cast-iron pan, and one order easily feeds a romantically inclined couple.

Restaurant Guide

Caffe Dolce
Three stars
5875 S. Rainbow Blvd. 367-9900.
Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 4:45-10 p.m.
Suggested dishes: imported prosciutto combination, $14; pizza Margherita, $9; wood-fired lasagna, $10; rack of lamb, $24.

I’d also give high marks to the linguine with fresh clams still in their shells, not the chopped clams from a can or jar on which most local Italian kitchens rely. The sauce, redolent of olive oil, white wine and garlic, was good enough to mop up with the leftover bread on hand. The sauce stood on its own so solidly that my friend and I passed altogether on the Parmesan cheese sprinkling.

Starters are straightforward and of good quality—all you hope for, really, in an Italian restaurant in this country. Thinly sliced San Daniele prosciutto is accompanied by burrata cheese, creamy mozzarella hearts, roasted peppers and brine-cured olives. Beef carpaccio comes topped with a mushroom, caper and shaved Parmigiano cowl.

I was skeptical when the owner suggested pizza, but since the restaurant is equipped with one of those fancy wood-burning ovens, I relented. And the pizza, a simple Margherita topped with fresh tomato, basil and a judicious amount of whole-milk mozzarella, was wonderful, with crust that you could snap in your teeth, and a mild, sweet flavor on the surface.

From the soup-and-salad section, choose roasted tomato soup with artisan bread, or a nicely constructed Tuscan-style salad composed of spring mix, goat cheese, sun-dried tomato, olives, pine nuts and a Balsamic vinaigrette to bind everything together.

For one lunch, I camped out in the deli section, chowing down on a pair of panini that I split with a friend. Having just eaten at Armandino Batali’s Seattle deli called Salumi (where the chef Mario Batali’s father cures his own meats, and attracts lines halfway to Pioneer Square), I can say that these panini almost measure up.

Caffe Dolce's thinly sliced San Daniele prosciutto is accompanied by burrata cheese, creamy mozzarella hearts, roasted peppers and brine-cured olives.

Bavarese uses a nice ciabatta (slipper-shaped rustic bread) for his sandwiches, the best of which include a grilled vegetable version with Asiago cheese and sun-dried tomato spread, and a prosciutto, mozzarella and fresh tomato grinder. (So how ’bout a nice meatball or porchetta?)

Among pastas, I can’t quibble with the flavor or quality of this classic Bolognese, but the kitchen pours on the sauce, rarely the case in Italy, where the noodle, not the sauce, is the point of any pasta dish. So instead, I prefer the fresh tagliatelle (a rich egg noodle) with shrimp and zucchini in a garlic and white-wine sauce. In fact, there could have been a touch more zucchini.

Main dishes often seem like an anticlimax in our Italian restaurants, and that’s the case here. I can’t complain about the chicken Milanese, a thinly pounded, nicely breaded cutlet, but it’s not something I can remember clearly one way or another. Wood-fired salmon is farmed, so that’s a non-starter for me. The best choice here is probably rack of lamb, perfectly seared medium rare with rosemary and garlic.

Bavarese is a national rep for the Italian dessert giant Bindi, so there are gelati and other frozen novelties galore on the menu. But the restaurant also makes its own desserts, including an estimable tiramisu and a delicious torta della nonna—a lemony, custard-filled torte. Service is performed by a team of Italian-speaking waiters, and as of this week, the restaurant is the proud possessor of a liquor license.

Maybe we should think of the place as old grappa in a new bottle. Works for me.

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