Every once in a while, I notice somebody claiming on Twitter or Facebook that the pizza has gone downhill at Dolce Vita, chef Marco Wiles' casual spot on lower Westheimer. I'm a big Dolce Vita fan, so the comment nags at me until I can't stand it anymore and go to see for myself.
Inevitably, I come away thinking, "Huh, the pizza is as good as it ever was, except for that one weird patch when the crust declined several years ago. Maybe it's even better now."
Over the past month or so, I've gotten hung up on the classic simplicity of Dolce Vita's Margherita pizza: the one with tomato, basil and mozzarella, amen. Basic? Sure, but it never fails to wow me with the silkiness of its bright tomato sauce, judiciously applied; the brittle fragility of its whole, crisped basil leaves; and the satisfying milkiness of its buffalo mozzarella blobs, rendered a little chewy by the blast-force heat of the wood-fired pizza oven.
But it's the crust that kills: airy and superbly crisp, with lovely sooty charred spots and a crown that bubbles up so high it can crack in places. It's a little less substantial than the wonderful Neapolitan-style crust at my other favorite, Pizaro's, so I end up eating more of it. I can polish off a $16 Margherita here all by myself - not a scrap of crust left on the plate - and look around for more.
The beauty of it is that there are interesting Italian wines by the glass to go along and a slate of unusual little first courses or big, invigorating salads for those who are so inclined. I like to start off with a clutch of baby artichoke hearts (the real ones, not the awful processed kind) flash-fried so that they turn into filmy bronze flower shapes, just begging for a squeeze of lemon.
Sometimes, if I am feeling particularly self-indulgent, I'll have a plate of pasta for dessert: perhaps the elemental spaghetti with baby clams and chickpeas, which is nicely briny and animated by flecks of red chile pepper. That's as much of a simple classic as the Margherita.
My only complaint about the pizzas here is that there's a tendency to overload the salty meat toppings - perhaps in an attempt to cement an impression of value in a place where the pizza prices of $12 to $16 are relatively high - so that I end up picking off hunks of pancetta or spicy salami to achieve the flavor balance I like.
I can live with that. Or I can just order the Margherita, which at Dolce Vita is anything but the plain vanilla choice.
(Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca, 500 Westheimer, 713-520-8222. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays)