La Dolce Vita    
740 S. B St.

This Italian gem in the heart of Heritage Square hits all the sweet spots. Charming atmosphere? Good service? Extensive wine list? Well-prepared food? La Dolce Vita has it all (and a full bar to boot).

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more picturesque location. La Dolce Vita occupies a three-story 1901 pre-Craftsman-style mansion, and chef/owner Michelle Kenney has maintained that Colonial Revival sensibility. Period fixtures and décor give the restaurant a vintage charm, very pretty and somewhat old-fashioned. You might be compelled to mind your Ps and Qs.


The period fixtures and décor give the restaurant a vintage charm

The first floor is occupied by a bar and wine tasting room, so if you’re more in the mood for a drink than a meal, I’d grab a table downstairs. I was unimpressed by the somewhat weak Old Fashioned from the bar, but the large wine list more than made up for it. There are nearly 50 options to choose from, including labels from California, Spain, France and, of course, Italy. Yes, you can spend $70 or $80 for a bottle — but there are numerous options at a much lower price point, and several wines are offered by the glass for less than $10. The wait staff will happily describe the wines, and bring samples if necessary.

Kenney, a second-generation restaurateur (mother Gerry Moreno ran La Dolce Vita Trattoria, Deli and Grocery in Hollywood Beach), knows her way around an Italian kitchen, and does the family tradition proud, bringing a little sparkle of her own to the menu. There’s something humble and homespun about many of the dishes, with their chunky textures and abundant garlic, and yet each seemed to have a twist that elevated it somewhat.

Instead of bread and butter, you’ll start your meal with fresh-baked focaccia bread and a generous bowl of fresh tomato bruschetta. The pumpkin ravioli appetizer is also made in house. These generously sized pillows are stuffed with a velvety, sweet pumpkin filling, and dressed in a rich sauce. But the pungent gorgonzola and bitter walnuts offset the sweet creaminess in the right way, making it a pleasure to savor.


Fresh-baked focaccia bread and fresh tomato bruschetta


The entree menu isn’t shockingly original, but there are a few uncommon goods. In addition to spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and veal scallopini, you’ll find homemade gnocchi, stuffed pork loin and interesting fish dishes. On a previous visit I had sampled the Portobello Florentine, filled with vegetables, pancetta and Gruyère then sauced with marsala cream, a satisfyingly rich vegetable-based (if not vegetarian) meal. The roasted salmon special came atop a pile of onions caramelized to a dark brown, practically indistinguishable from their origins but so, so good.

For our second outing, the delicious salmon still in mind, I couldn’t resist trying the fish of the day. It did not disappoint. Buried under a hearty puttanesca full of chunky tomatoes, capers, olives and garlic was a thick slab of pan-fried white fish. Despite the bold and spicy sauce I still tasted the delicate flavor and tender texture of the filet. I imagine this is how Italian nonnas serve their pesce in Naples.


Pan-fried white fish buried under a hearty puttanesca
full of chunky tomatoes, capers, olives and garlic

The Italian pot roast was a completely different kind of cooking, and brought to mind cold November nights in Verona. Not a slab of beef, but tender hunks of it, in a wonderful, flavorful sauce full of wine, tomatoes and onions, served in a big bowl with pasta. The waitress described it as “Italian comfort food” and she spoke the truth. It was a warm summer evening in Oxnard, not a chilly Northern Italian winter, but we had no trouble polishing off every drop.

The pasta and meatballs were not my favorite. I genuinely liked the homestyle marinara, but the meatballs themselves were a touch spongy, and seemed to lack that deep-down meatiness I crave. Not bad, but not a winner in my opinion.

La Dolce Vita mixes up its desserts on a regular basis, so you’ll have to rely on your server for the evening’s offerings. We tried the flourless chocolate cake, definitely on the dark side and very fudgy, with a welcome assist from caramelized figs: the essence of decadence. Want something less extravagant? Try the chocolate chip bread pudding, more cakelike than custardy but a total crowd pleaser.


Chocolate chip bread pudding

La Dolce Vita is open for lunch and dinner, and also offers a traditional afternoon English tea. Or you can join downtown Oxnard residents and workers for a laid-back happy hour at the wine bar and lounge. With so many ways to enjoy this quaint Italian restaurant, sampling the sweet life is deliciously easy.