“What are you making?” I asked my friend Kristjan in Tartu over a decade ago, having just arrived for dinner. “Chinese food,” he replied. In the tiny, cold kitchen of a Soviet-era panel building partially completed at the end of the eighties, my interest was piqued. I had been in Estonia just over two years and had yet to find chicken breast or brown rice in a grocery store. I leaned over the table occupying the majority of the floor to get a look at the greasy stove. I just smelled boiling egg noodles. A rather cheap steam clinging to the cushioned wallpaper.
Kristjan peeled back some of the tape insulating the window and tied a string to a nail so the window wouldn’t open too far. A gust of cold air immediately filled the room, steaming up the glass. He lit a cigarette. It smelled better than the egg noodles. He was preparing an instant package of noodles, like Ramen, and was about to add the spice mix from the little plastic pouch. I noticed a bottle of ketchup standing upside down on the table. I got nervous.
I’ve always found it unfortunate that the first emissary of a foreign cuisine is usually instant whatever. Low standards for what is considered good, or even acceptable, are de facto set by a mammoth food-processing factory in Holland. Plastic bags assembled in China. That’s about as Asian as it gets.
The same applies to a lot of the early Italian food available in Tartu. Reinu Pizza cornered the market early on with their twenty-four hour delivery of cold crust and cat food. Apparently Neill Blomkamp studied in Tartu University. I ordered one that night at Kristjan’s, by his recommendation. It was delivered only partially defrosted, and when I slid it out onto the pan, it fell upside down. The meat substitute that burned on impact never came out of the Teflon® (the oven was broken). I bought him a new pan the next day.
And Salvest, the Tartu-based cannery that supplies the whole country with jarred soup and authentic international sauces, introduced its still-popular Italian Sauce. Just add pasta and you’re whisked away to Naples. Go to their website and read the ingredients for their Thai, Chinese, Italian and Mexican sauces. Apart from one ingredient, the only difference between them is the name on the label.
It is with this mentality that Priit Rajalo, a beat reporter for the Postimees newspaper, marched in to the newly opened La Dolce Vita about eight or nine years ago to write a review. He wrote, “A dark-skinned English-speaking man came out of the kitchen and started asking customers if they enjoyed their meals.” This too piqued my interest, and the next day I tried out the new pizzeria for myself. When I walked in, my first thought was, “He’s not dark-skinned, you moron! He’s Italian!” In a country with more tanning salons than dental offices, I found this remark more than ignorant. If you take the average tint of Estonians who tan on a weekly basis and those who don’t, skin color here is easily a couple shades darker than your average Italian. And why did it matter, anyhow?
Incidentally, it’s a little-known fact that there is a huge vitamin-D deficiency in Estonia. Maybe that’s why tanning is so popular. But that’s like smoking so you can relax. Usually when one country is absolutely in love with a particular food that the rest of the world finds revolting (pultost in Norway, and seal excrement among the Canadian Inuit for example), that indicates some sort of vitamin deficiency. A lot of the food in Estonia is pickled or eaten with vinegar. I’m not entirely sure of how to interpret that though. The Italians eat a lot of pasta and ze French eat a lot of, well, anything.
Mr. Priit also complained that his pizza had hardly any toppings. Just tomato sauce and cheese. He failed to realize that he had ordered the Margherita, the most classic, simplest (and at La Dolce Vita, the cheapest) pizza around. Perhaps if he had not been so stingy, he would have enjoyed one of the many delicious pizzas I’ve come to love over the years. That’s what happens when you pay cheap and expect amazing.
That first week of business, I went three times. Except for the occasional trip to Tallinn, I hadn’t had a proper pizza for years. I couldn’t get enough. I dragged a couple farners there the third time, and after the third round of beer, when we ordered a fourth, Kristiina (it was her first waitressing job) began to make faces at us. When we ordered the brewskis, she actually asked, “More?!” in a hideously disapproving tone of voice. She wouldn’t serve us a fifth round—she flat out refused—so the dark-skinned man himself came out and had a couple beers with us. I vaguely remember him giving us a dessert pizza on the house.
La Dolce Vita has been one of the more popular restaurants in Tartu for years now. Set in the basement of a former police station on the corner of Gildi and Kompanii Streets, it has what I consider to be the best interior of any place to dine out in Tartu. Arched ceilings and windowsills big enough to be used as tables (and many customers do eat on the windowsills) make for a cozy dinner. I’ve always liked their jaans. At least the men’s. A photograph of Sophia Loren makes you sad when you’re finished. Conceptions of “beautiful” and “sexy” may change over time, but Sophia is the hottest septuagenarian alive. I wonder if there is a Godfather-era poster of Marlon Brando in the jaana.
The Capricciosa used to be my favorite pizza. My new favorite, for years now in fact, is the Diavola. It’s spicier than black pepper, so it’s more of a hit among farners. All pizzas are baked in a wood-heated oven, and sometimes you can see the chef on duty tossing the raw crust up in the air. The pasta dishes on the menu are also quite tasty, although from time to time there is an off night. My only complaint is that there seems to be somewhat of an abundance of salt, on a regular basis. Or maybe I personally tend to be more susceptible to salt, as I rarely cook with it. I want to live past fifty. Regardless, order plenty of water.
And top off your meal with some authentic Italian ice cream. Unlike most restaurants, you can choose your ice cream by looking at it first.
A couple of weeks ago I was simply exhausted. No way I was going to cook, and I didn’t have anything in the fridge either. No problem. We called La Dolce Vita and placed an order. I had to go pick it up myself, but the food was still warm at home. The waitress who rang me up at the register—Krista—for some reason did not recall that I had spoken with her a mere twenty minutes previously. She thought I wanted to order takeaway from the bar, and remarked that someone had just ordered precisely the same combination of menu items. “That was me,” I politely volunteered. There was a bit more confusion, but it worked out in the end. This was not the first time Krista had been confused about an order I had called in at La Dolce Vita.
I once asked the owners (there are two Italians) where they got their ingredients. “We import our tomatoes,” was the unexpected answer. Something about Italian tomatoes being better for Italian food. And while their ravioli is good, I somehow doubt they sit in the kitchen making it by hand. Especially as an order of ravioli comes out of the kitchen in just a few minutes. I haven’t seen similar stuff in the shop though, but so what? It’s good.
There’s a courtyard behind the building, accessible from Gildi Street or through the restaurant itself. The patio, open in summer, is always a nice place to grab a bite and a beer, or coffee. There’s hardly ever any direct sunlight there, due to the courtyardiness of the courtyard. The air is a few degrees cooler there, and the patio has an interesting wall made of firewood. Some of the logs jut out, flowerpots resting on them.
There is also a floor-to-ceiling window on one side, and it belongs to another property. I don’t know what is in there (an office maybe), but I clearly recall one summer day when my older daughter had just learned to walk. We kept our eyes on the only exit, and we failed to find anything she could cause trouble with, so we sort of relaxed our parental duties and left her to her own devices. Which turned out to be banging on this huge window, making the man inside who had been taking a siesta fairly irate with us. It was like interrupting performance art. There were no curtains, and he was sleeping on display to a café. Nothing to indicate it was his home. What kind of company has a bed in its office?
Unfortunately, these Italians are from Italy. They do make good pizza—no question about that—but they’re not from Chicago. The pizza of my heart’s desire has and always will be the upside-down, deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza. With what the Americans call Italian sausage, something that doesn’t actually exist in Italy. But that’s just my “premisconception”. It’s only natural that we all have them. And Ramen noodles, after all, are authentic Asian cuisine.