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Dolce Pizza

August 19, 2007

By SAVORY SAM

Dolce Pizza is a delightful new addition to the family of restaurants in Hagerstown. Its Italian-Eastern European menu is unique, its cozy neighborliness is endearing, and its prices are very reasonable.

Perhaps best of all is co-owner and cook Iulia Manea (call her "Julia"), who is cook, waitress, maitre d' and the creative force behind Dolce.

Her personal touch is the best thing about Dolce. Manea is like a stereotypical Italian grandmother -- welcoming, upbeat, exuberant, knowledgeable -- and she wants you to have a good time. But she stretches herself thin, and service can be slow.

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But chill out, relax, enjoy the company of your tablemates. After all, that's part of the pleasure of eating out.

Of course, the other part of eating out is the food, and Dolce scores high marks here. The Italian-Eastern European menu reflects Manea's heritage. She was raised in Romania, but her grandmother was Sicilian, and Manea cooked at a Sicilian restaurant in New York before coming to Hagerstown.

A couple of the Sams shared a recent dinner at Dolce. We ordered eggplant parmigiana and "Julia stuffed cabbage." My companion, whose grandparents emigrated from Southern Italy and who was raised on authentic Italian food, had high standards for the eggplant.

The list of Italian dishes included chicken cacciatore, homemade lasagna, two raviolis, five spaghettis and a half-dozen other pasta shapes. The list of European dishes included moussaka, Moldovan-style chicken and Vienna-style goulash.

But there's more to the menu, including pizza, grilled meat, seafood, calzones, strombolis and sandwiches. It's a lot to consider.

While waiting for the food, we looked around the dining room. It's pretty downscale -- linoleum floor, mismatched chairs, raw wood wainscotting on the walls, plastic flowers on tables. One exception to the "downscale" designation: White tablecloths, some hand-embroidered, covered the room's eight tables. The room is clean but definitely not the resturant's main attraction.

Also, Dolce has no liquor license. But Manea encouraged us to go and buy a bottle of wine. She supplied cups when we did.

The food is surprisingly good. The garden salad is full of variety -- slices of decent-looking tomato, red onion and cucumber served with shredded white cheese, croutons and a little iceberg lettuce. An oil-and-balsamic-vinegar dressing was served charmingly on the side in an engraved glass tea cup.

The homemade eggplant parmigiana was rich, hearty and flavorful -- moist and not too bready. "Just the way an Italian papa would like," said my companion.

The eggplant came with perfectly cooked spaghetti served with an excellent marinara sauce.

"I make it myself," Manea said. "I cook for one hour and a half. Everything fresh -- tomato, onion ..." and a few more ingredients.

The stuffed cabbage was filled with ground beef and rice, served with a dollop of the marinara sauce and a sprinkle of fresh dill. The rolls were tasty but mild. I prefer a spicier flavor palette, so I went ga-ga over the surprisingly delicious, bacon-flavored chopped cabbage accompaniment that came with the cabbage rolls.

We finished our evening with Manea's version of a crêpes suzette. The slightly bready crepe was rolled around a thin smear of filling -- sweetened ricotta cheese flavored with lemon and vanilla rum -- and topped with honey and a few shreds of mozzarella cheese. I wanted more filling; my companion wanted less mozzarella.

We also tried an "anipasta" salad (rolled, sliced ham, salami and cheese over iceberg lettuce) and one breakfast dish -- two over-easy eggs (but crispy-fried on the bottom) with delicious home fries.

But the first visit led us to another. We ordered several pizzas -- a four-cheese pizza (with mozzarella, cheddar, provolone and Parmesan), a country pizza (ground beef, bacon, sausage, mild banana peppers and two cheeses) and a vegetarian pizza (with eight vegetables and three cheeses).

The Sams disagreed over the pizza assessment. Most of us liked the crust. It's chewy and flavorful, like a flat version of Italian bread. One member of the clan found her crust underdone -- "Soggy," she sniffed -- but others did not complain.

Pizza toppings also sparked different views. Dolce uses canned mushrooms, which the vegetarians in my family hate. So the vegetarian pizza -- with canned mushrooms and some canned peppers -- got mixed reviews. The four-cheese pizza was plenty cheesy but surprisingly bland.

We had a few other quibbles. The napkins are dreadfully thin, virtually useless. Shredded mozzarella is used on too many dishes. The beverage selection is OK if you only drink Pepsi soft drinks.

But the food is generally fresh, the preparation is generally good to excellent and, dollar-for-dollar, the value is hard to beat. Plus there is Manea, who takes care of customers as if they were family and friends.

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