Where waterfront chic meets a fusion of Cuban and Italian cuisine
By Elizabeth Keyser
The moment we step out of the car, we hear the affable clamor of voices, clinking glasses and silverware. It’s a quarter to six on a Thursday and already it sounds like a fun party. So, the question at hand seems to be: are diners at Dolce Cubano ready to mambo to a techno beat? The answer must be yes at this glitzy, waterfront bistro. Call it South Beach, Stamford-style. An airy, windowed space of white, penny-tile floors, red leather banquettes, black tables, antiqued mirrors, monumental, silver candelabras and chandeliers dripping with silver and red baubles. And it looks like everyone’s come straight from the office. Men neatly dressed in business casual flock around the triangular, white Carrara marble bar. (Ladies, the men are here in droves.) The entire front wall of windows is open to the sea breeze and the view of moored yachts.
The hostesses smile, welcoming us. They lead us to a table near the window, away from the bar. We begin with rum drinks—what else at a rum bar? Dolce mojitos come in three flavors. The classic is a refreshing, not too sweet, glass of muddled lime, mint, rum, a touch of ginger soda and lots of ice. The coconut adds creamy tropical richness to the mix. The most beautiful mojito is the wildberry, a clear drink with layers of muddled raspberries, blueberries and mint. There are nine other rum drinks on the menu, including the rum runner, a sweet cherry-flavored mix of light and dark rum, and the mai tai, a pineapple-citrus flavored mix of light and dark rums. Dolce mojitos are the better choice.
Our smiling waitress has the air of a pro used to a busy restaurant, and hands us three menus covering our dinner, specials and wine list options. The focus is Cuban, with a taste of tropical Spanish combined with many Italian and American touches. Dolce means sweet in Italian, and this is a menu that wants to please many. (Dolce is owned by Nick Racanelli Sr. and Nick Racanelli Jr., also owners of ZaZa in Stamford and Molto in Fairfield.)
We start with small plates. We’ve noticed a lot of lobster guacamoles coming out of the kitchen, so we order it too. It’s a light and luxurious dish. Creamy guacamole studded with tender chunks of lobster, a goodly amount, shared between two with a pile of thin crisp plantain chips. The croquetas de jamon (ham croquettes) arrive piping hot, their golden exterior giving way to a molten cheesy, smoky and creamy inside. For more flavor, we dip them into the bowl of sauce that’s more tomato sauce than Latin salsa, though still delicious. More exciting is the sea bass ceviche. It’s the real deal—chunks of fish that have been naturally “cooked” by the acids in an orange-lime dressing mixed with a confetti of minced red onions, tomatoes and pineapple. The sharp onion, sweet fruit and fresh fish combine into a lively and satisfying dish, a must for summer dining for any Latin purist.
We also tried the beets agro dolce, but this dish was less successful. The blue-veined rich cheese and the honey-balsamic dressing overwhelm the subtle flavor of the beets. Two classic Cuban dishes at Dolce—ropa vieja and roast pork—are both hearty plates heaped with slow-cooked meat, saffron-rice and flavorful homemade beans, comfort cooking at its Latin best. The pork is marinated in a dry rub, then roasted for five hours at a low temperature until it is fall-apart tender. The ropa vieja is marinated skirt steak, simmered in a tomato-based sauce and finished with wine. Ask for hot sauce: you’ll get adorable mini bottles of Tabasco.
Linguine with clam sauce, an Italian classic, fits comfortably into Dolce’s repertoire. And this is a well-prepared version. Tender, juicy littleneck clams, their shells catching the buttery sauce, sit in a bowl of al dente linguine, which has absorbed the buttery, sea-flavored sauce.
The food at Dolce is very good. The kitchen is clearly efficient, cranking out dishes with a constant stream of food runners coming through the kitchen doors. If I had to quibble about something, it is the details that get overlooked. We find a piece of broken bay leaf in the ropa vieja, and also a fibrous stem of an herb. The prices call for more flair, for that barely doctored tomato sauce, for instance, or, say, a slice of orange to garnish that mai tai.
But Dolce is also about the atmosphere. People are clearly excited to be here. And it can be noisy. Even though we are seated well away from the buzz at the bar, voices from the big table of men behind us are louder than the conversation at our own table. Plus there’s the soundtrack, a rushing waterfall of constant club music. If you’re treating your mother-in-law, best to bring her for lunch.
Dolce is busy and well staffed by smiling, courteous professionals. Plates, bowls, wine glasses are large here, appropriate since Dolce is about living large. It’s also fast-paced. That pace is what propels us, finally, from Dolce’s comfortable, padded black leather seats. We are full of the sweet life, of food, drink and the experience. And when we feel like going to a party on the waterfront, we’ll come back to Dolce.