As any long-time Phantom fan knows, searching out authentic Italian meals in Central PA is both a challenge and a passion for your favorite restaurant reviewer.
Such a challenge/passion often results in disappointment and lowered expectations.
A good example was several years ago when I took Italian friends to a place I’d heard of in Enola called Dolce Vita (literally “sweet life”).
The experience was less than sweet, so far less that I didn’t even write about it. I figured I’d wait, give it a second chance, but I just never went back.
So it was with suspicion and low expectations that I ventured out to the relocated Dolce Vita, which moved this year from Enola to Camp Hill.
Well, vivere e imparare — live and learn!
For although Dolce Vita in Camp Hill is owned and operated by the same Nino Basic who owned and operated Dolce Vita in Enola, dining in the new location is very different.
Maybe some of that is atmospheric. As I recall, Dolce Vita in Enola was just a cut above a working-class neighborhood saloon and about as Italianate as a blue-collar bar in Essen. Not that there’s anything wrong with establishments of that type. It’s just they’re rarely home to well-made angel hair pasta. And the overall feel at Dolce Vita in Camp Hill is different.
Located in a renovated two-story house along the main drag of Market Street, it has a nice, quiet Italian feel thanks to its warm colors and lighting, an interior stone archway, tile floors, linen tablecloths, Italian art, a first-floor serving bar — although the place is BYOB — and Italian opera music playing in the background.
It’s small, maybe eight tables downstairs, but cozy. There is additional seating upstairs and on the front porch in good weather.
While atmosphere helps, the proof of improvement is in the food. And it has vastly improved.
Bread and salad, always good measures of Italian dining, were fresh, crisp and tasty; the salad (which comes with all entrées) was served with an excellent sweet house-made vinaigrette.
Appetizers included mushrooms stuffed with lump crab and baked clams casino with baby clams. Both were exceptional.
The regular menu, which seems to me entirely sufficient, is accompanied with a list of “specials” (chicken meatballs and crabmeat-stuffed salmon, for example) that seem to outnumber the regulars.
This generally raises questions for me along the lines of: How can any kitchen, let alone a small one, offer such variety without liberal use of frozen foods? And, if one is eating frozen foods, why not dine at home?
But, having said that, entrées sampled at my table were very good, and one was better than that.
I had steak di Napoli ($21), a New York strip steak with mushrooms, onions and green and red peppers in marinara sauce. Though the steak (ordered rare) was a tad tough and not quite rare, it was tasty. The peppers were great. And the side of pasta that comes with all nonpasta entrées was perfect.
A dining partner had a “special,” capellini d’Angelo ($24), extra-thin spaghetti served with shrimp, large chunks of crab and asparagus. The dish drew rave reviews and was large enough to also provide lunch the following day.
The restaurant offers standards: red or white linguine with clams; veal or chicken Piccata or Marsala; spaghetti with meatballs or sausage; manicotti, baked ziti and just about any other classic Italian dish you can think of.
But it also has offerings such as red snapper with shrimp dipped in eggs, and a house dish of sautéed veal with eggplant, capers, ham, onions, tomato and mozzarella in a white wine sauce — in other words, variety.
This is the kind of place, largely due to its location, that can become a regular stop for a lot of people, including neighborhood walk-ins.
If you bring wine, there is no corking fee. Ice buckets for white wine are available upon request. There’s better Italian in Central PA. But Dolce Vita of Camp Hill shows promise. Its challenge will be to maintain consistency given the wide variety it offers. The irony? Owner operator Nino Basic is from Yugoslavia. But, hey, everybody loves Italian.
1509 Market St., Camp Hill;
4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday;
4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday;
4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Most major credit cards;
BYOB; catering and take-out available; reservations recommended.
The Phantom Diner has been a longtime restaurant reviewer for Central PA Magazine.