When Susan Wong experiences a pang of nostalgia, she visits La Dolce Vita for its authentic satisfying pasta dishes and homey atmosphere.
I was six years old when I used to walk around my parent’s home dusted and streaked with flour, crumbly yellow bits of dough crusted onto my nails and even my face. Whether it was thick Shanghai noodles or ribbons of fettuccine inspired by our Italian neighbour’s homemade tomato sauce, my dad and I were obsessed. We made batch after batch – I even recall pasta for breakfast. Our motivation? My dad’s toy: a shiny, chrome-plated, steel Imperia Titania Pasta Maker with a wooden grip handle that was given to my parents as a wedding gift.
Sometimes when I miss my family or home, I think “what a shame, my inherited pasta machine is packed away in storage in Toronto, and its cutters and gears have not been cranked in a decade”. Usually, a swift craving of homemade pasta follows and a visit to Nairobi’s La Dolce Vita on the weekend is imminent.
It takes enormous amounts of hard work to seem effortless and welcoming; and there is a lot of that effortlessness at La Dolce Vita, both in food and sense of place.
“It was not possible for me to close the restaurant. La Dolce Vita was Riccardo’s life. He put everything and all his passion into it,” Patrizia Fiora, sister to La Dolce Vita’s late patron Riccardo Fiora, shared with me during a recent visit.
The younger sister of Riccardo is now splitting her time between Italy and Kenya since her brother’s recent passing from a five-month battle with lung cancer. Together with her nephew, Francesco Fiora, Patrizia hopes to continue to celebrate Riccardo’s passion and memory through keeping La Dolce Vita as it was, and is.
This 109-seat Italian restaurant has been quietly nestled at the bottom of the staircase of Muthaiga Shopping Centre for a decade and a half and is the very essence of its Italian name, which translates as “The Sweet Life” and refers to the classic 1960 award-winning film by Federico Fellini. A neighbourhood favourite, it will be celebrating its 15 year anniversary later this year.
The food at La Dolce Vita is not going to leave you breathless, but it is hugely satisfying. In some restaurants, buzz words such as ‘authentic’ or ‘rustic’ may feature frequently on the menu before you get a sense of the essence of what the restaurant is about. Here at La Dolce Vita, the team wears their passion for the cuisine on their sleeves. This is convincing cooking; not over conceptualised.
My companion and I began with the Carpaccio di Salmone in Bella Vista; a thinly sliced marinated salmon rolled with some dill, arranged carefully on a dome of rocket, finished with a drizzle of light lemon vinaigrette. The classic combination of lemon and dill delicately permeated the fish and complemented its richness.
Our fresh homemade Tagliolini al Nero di Seppia all’Aragosta, homemade pasta with black squid ink in fresh lobster sauce, arrived with some decorative dill (a favourite garnish of the restaurant). The fresh pasta from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy is long and perfect for absorbing delicious sauces such as one made of lobster. The chunks of lobster were thankfully not overcooked and the bits that peaked above the sauce revealed beautiful white flesh. Served in the halved lobster shells, the entire portion could hardly fit on the plate.
One of my favourites, Fettucine al Granchio, featured crab from Lamu and honestly, couldn’t have any more crab meat in it. Can’t believe I just said that. The ribbons of fresh pasta were coated generously with crab and fresh tomatoes; and the healthy portion poured out of a crab shell, again, garnished with a bundle of fresh dill.
‘The Sweet Life’ came to a poignant conclusion with the arrival of Millefoglie Dolce Vita. I urge you to look past the unsightly and puzzling garnish of finely diced carrots sprinkled on the white rim of the plate, once you have (and I know you can), you will find a delicious mound of flaky puff pastry inter-layered with rich crema Chantilly.
The neat and tidy family-run La Dolce Vita has been a fixture when it comes to Nairobi’s diverse culinary scene, but it isn’t just a piece of history. The restaurant is a living and breathing culinary destination that still champions the same passion that its founder had. It is certainly a place where appetites can be satiated, bouts of homesickness easily forgotten and memories revisited.