La Dolce Vida

The Sweet LifeThis hidden gem in Palmer Park is what makes Detroit so hip.

By Patty LaNoue Stearns
Photos by John Sobczak

I spent my early adult life ensconced in the architectural splendor of Palmer Park, a neighborhood with curvy streets and ornate apartment buildings designed by Albert Kahn and other famed architects of the1920s through ’50s.

Since the early population-boom days, when the rich and powerful inhabited those glamorous digs, the area has had its ups and downs—like Detroit itself, which seems unable to shrug off its national rep as the Rodney Dangerfield of cities, perpetually maligned, the butt of jokes, the worst of this and that.

Yet between the revamped Detroit Institute of Arts, the Opera House, the riverfront walk and parks and all the other cultural joy that Detroit spreads around, maybe we can just smile knowingly and find the time to take it all in. I’ll let you in on another secret: When it comes to dining, Detroit’s eclectic restaurant scene rivals most cities I’ve supped in (okay, not Paris or New York), but if you haven’t been there lately, it’s ripe for exploration.

My old neighborhood, just a few miles up Woodward from all that culture, boasts a treasure of a bistro that even in these tough economic times is thriving. Like all über-cool places, it’s under the radar, imperceptible and understated, hidden from the hoi polloi. Not even a sign, just trees strung with lights and a little plaque that says LDV. The cognoscenti will tell you La Dolce Vita is the place for fine northern Italian cuisine, a romantic oasis with live torch singers and dancing to Latin jazz, the epitome of urban sophistication. It also boasts the best patio around, an iron-gated piazza with a fountain, twinkling lights, tables with umbrellas, a bar and enough shrubbery, vines and foliage to make you forget that Woodward Avenue is just over the wall.

You enter from the rear, where a valet keeps you and your car safe for $5, and once inside, your Roman holiday begins. Get ready to make a wish and toss your three coins into the fountain—it’s not Trevi, but it feels that authentic. I’ve dined at LDV several times since Enrico Roselli, a native of Calabria, Italy, opened the restaurant in 1994. Each time I am blown away by the Romanesque décor, the professional service, the aromas of fresh garlic, earthy spices and cheese that waft from the kitchen, the lush salad greens and ruby tomatoes, the handmade pasta, and the amazing desserts made by Roselli’s wife, Denise.

On my latest visit, my friend Maureen and I dove into large, satisfying meals—mine, a flat-iron steak, done to perfection, sliced and fanned out over garlicky mashed potatoes whipped with sautéed spinach and topped with a rich brown sauce. Hers was a creamy, cheesy, garlic-scented dish of handmade penne, sautéed chicken and artichoke hearts, each dish so divine, I could have shouted with happiness. And then I had to try the tiramisu, another creamy espresso-chocolate decadence, after which I died and went to heaven.

Had we arrived a bit later on that Friday night, we wouldn’t have been seated in the 105-seat main room for hours because of all the reservations (a new banquet room seats 60 more people, and the patio handles more overflow in warm weather). We sat next to a 30-something couple, young doctors from Beaumont Hospital who were there for the first time, madly in love and obviously enjoying the ambience as the room filled to capacity. Tom Caldwell, LDV’s general manager, says about 80 percent of his clientele comes from Oakland County, up Woodward a few miles, and the rest, he says, are “the Detroit elite.”

Ah, that’s perfect, since right across Woodward, past the tree-lined boulevard called Merrill Plaisance that runs between, is Palmer Park’s first Albert Kahn-designed building, commissioned by philanthropist and stadium owner Walter Briggs for Detroit’s elite—1001 Covington, circa 1926, now being converted into luxurious 2,900 square-foot condos.

Maybe I’m just an old romantic, but I’m hoping these are signs that the fortunes of my old neighborhood, and Detroit, are on the upswing again. To all who malign without ever visiting, I beckon you to stop for a sparkling glass of Italian Prosecco, a bite of LDV’s signature caprese salad and take a look.

When Visiting Detroit

  • Don’t Miss: The Diego Rivera murals and the Van Gogh paintings at the newly reopened Detroit Institute of Arts, which holds one of the largest and most significant collections in the United States. 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, 313-833-7900 (weekend hotline, 313-833-7530).
  • Drive: North on Woodward from downtown to check out the Palmer Park Apartment Buildings Historic District, featuring exquisite examples of Art Deco, Bauhaus, Egyptian, Spanish, Venetian, Moorish, Tudor and Mediterranean architecture. The district is directly south of the wooded, 280-acre Palmer Park, in the triangle formed by the intersection of Woodward Avenue and McNichols Road. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  —P.L.S.

This article appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of Michigan BLUE. Click the link below to view this entire article in PDF format.

Click to download: BlueLaDolceVita0010.pdf