With so many standing in line for his Italian desserts, Frabrizio Cali expanded his Mesa business to include an adjacent grocery with foods from his native Sicily.
Then, after adding paninis and salads, he began serving traditional, authentic house-made Italian foods in 2022.
The reasons to visit Dolce Vita Gelato and Grocery, 5251 E. Brown Road were increasing.
And another: In Italy, visiting a restaurant is not just about the food; it’s an event, an experience, he said.
“You don’t go to eat,” the Mesa resident explained. “You spend the time with some friends. You go to be together. And, in Italy, it’s easy to meet people; you sit down, you meet.”
Today, Cali’s staff of 14 serves pastas, pizzas, a large assortment of Italian meats, cheeses and desserts, Sicilian-inspired specialty platters and premium groceries.
This weekend the high-end deli started a 20-week series of specials today. Each week, a different region of Italy will be highlighted with a dish.
“We sell only imported items from Italy, including olive oil, Italian cookies, pastries and other desserts like tiramisu, fruit tarts, cannolis, sfogliatelle, millefoglie cream cake, 7 veli and hazelnut cake,” Cali said. “We always try to find products that are hard to find for Italians and for other Americans who want to explore.”
His menu is based on well-known Italian recipes, but Cali will improvise with a house version, as it’s done in the old country.
“There are many different versions of carbonada in Italy, so if you go into one place it might be different from another,” he noted.
The paninis are prepared hot or cold and there is a seemingly endless array of salads for which guests can choose the ingredients.
“We want to keep our traditions intact,” Cali said. “We make and serve food exactly like it’s done in Italy.”
Cali was born and raised in Palermo, Sicily, the 2,700-year-old city known for its architectural and culinary treasures.
Here one of his grandpas made wine at home and his mother prepared dishes unique to the island and her kitchen.
“I became passionate about food because of her; she’s 88 now and an amazing cook still,” he said.
“I was living in the old town and, this is probably destiny, above the oldest rosticceria, which is like a deli,” he explained.
Sicily has been a crossroads since the ancient world, conquered and settled by many powers.
“Most of the conquerors and the local people had a good relationship that made for an easier exchange of culture, including food,” he says. “Because of this, Sicilian cuisine is influenced by a lot of different peoples but is made with local ingredients.”
“Italians have very strict rules about food, and it is like a religion to them. We try to follow all those rules in order to provide an authentic experience,” he said.
“And even with all the cultures that have lived in Italy, Sicilian food is the richest in Italy,” he says.
Sicilian cuisine is also different city by city. For instance, Caponata, a popular side, has about 30 versions.
When Cali was 10, his family moved to fashion and culinary capital, Milan, where he was an amateur chef and owned a restaurant for two years.
“I was following the love of online videogames then, knowing that one day I could follow my other passion, food,” he explained. The family owned an electrical company for many years and most of them remain in Italy, which he visits as often as he can.
When he came to the United States, he was an executive producer of online videogames for MMORPG in San Francisco, and they offered him a position in Phoenix. His other passion caught up with him and he left the company after three years for the food business.
He started with gelato, because for a Sicilian, “Gelato is blood.”
“So growing there, you breathe gelato culture every day. I was passionate about it, and I decided to learn how to do it there.”
On Friday and Saturday nights, lines of fans of all ages wait for their favorites in the glass counters
The gelato is made at Dolce Vita in an Italian-made processor, and kept displayed for a maximum of only three days, after which the product can lose consistency and taste.
“The low temperature of ice cream dulls the taste buds and can give you ‘brain freeze.’ The first taste is wonderful, then you can’t taste it,” Cali said. “Not so with gelato.”
His staff includes Mesa residents Francesca Ciro, head prep chef, and Marica Prodnov, pastry chef. They carefully prepare menu items and weekly Sicilian Board specials,
“We do everything from scratch daily,” Cali said. “We buy ingredients but we don’t buy prepared or semi-prepared food; we’re very stubborn about that.”
“If you want fresh food, please take the little extra time to wait. I cannot give you good food in just three minutes.”
Dolce Vita is distinct from other Italian-American restaurants. “We don’t blame the American Italian cuisine; it is actually very good,” he said.
“But my food culture is very different, and I would like to give my customers an authentic Sicilian experience.”
“We don’t make complicated recipes with a lot of ingredients or with many flavors all together because this is not real Sicilian,” Cali added. “We make authentic food, nothing fancy, just simple and good.”
Information: 480-218-0225, dolcevitagroupaz.com
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