For the sweet life, stick to the gelato

Many dream of la dolce vita: the sweet life, Italian style.

My version is less like the Fellini film and more like the Land of Dairy Queen, only with gelato. That's not quite what you get at Dolce Vita, the gelateria on Queen Anne, but if you stick to the sweet stuff, you may well be transported.

The space is slim, wood-paneled and self-consciously European, the walls hung with travel posters. Illustrated Italian tourist books are available to read. Orders, whether for desserts or entrees, are placed at the front counter, which puts you right next to the all-important gelato case.

All-important because the No. 1 reason to visit Dolce Vita is gelato, the Italian ice milk currently enjoying its moment in the sun ... well, in the freezer.

Gelato's distinctive formula — its lower fat content in particular — means that your favorite ice-cream flavors may not be as successful as gelato. For my money, nothing works better in gelato than nut flavors, and Dolce Vita's almost chewy hazelnut and amaretto flavors shine. But they also feature everything from fruit flavors to a cookie-heavy cookies-and-cream sure to be a hit with the kids.

Children will also appreciate the fact that gelato isn't as firm as ice cream and is therefore more amenable to the classic childhood pastime of mashing your ice cream into soup.

Another draw at this burgeoning neighborhood hangout are fresh doughnuts (between gelato and doughnuts, this place knows how to ride a trend), made fresh on weekend mornings. Bombolone ($1.50), despite the Italian moniker, are similar to American cream-filled doughnuts. The chocolate glazed bombolona is the supermarket Bismarck's upscale cousin, sporting a stylish ribbon of orange glaze and the refreshing flavor of fresh pastry cream.

Dolce Vita also bakes miniature cinnamon rolls (75 cents), a couple of satisfying mouthfuls and not too sweet. Espresso drinks are also made with care, and the service, which can be distracted on weeknights, becomes swift and friendly at breakfast time.

Unfortunately, savory items are notably less successful. Dinner entrees are a Mediterranean mishmash — chicken panini with hummus, cucumbers and tapenade ($5.50) just doesn't make sense. And the pastas, which hew to more classic preparations, are bland. Pair these with an uninspiring Italian wine list and it's enough to make you wish you skipped straight to the gelato.

Of course, since the gelato case is visible from the street, most customers dive right in anyway. Note on the rating: Dolce Vita is not an acceptable place to get a full meal, and it therefore earns a "not recommended" rating. It is, however, recommended as a gelato shop, or for coffee and doughnuts.

Check please

Prosciutto Classico panino: Despite several slices of rosciutto di parma, fontina cheese and tomatoes, this grilled sandwich came out bland. The tomatoes were missing the acidity needed to tie it together.

Four-cheese tortellini with house red sauce: This pasta tasted for all the world like a microwaved frozen entree. A mix of white and green tortellini, neither had any flavor, and the house red sauce won't strike fear into the heart of any Italian grandmother.

Small salad: From too little tartness to too much. This green salad's thick, burningly sour balsamic dressing made it nearly inedible, and it was served on a hot plate — you could actually watch the greens wilt.

Small gelato (amaretto and hazelnut): Begin and end your meal here. Nut gelati is a treasure, the essence of nuts in a smooth and practically meaty form. The hazelnut is particularly good.

Small gelato (gianduja and strawberry): Gianduja is a delectable chocolate-hazelnut combination that makes a great gelato flavor; Dolce's strawberry is less flavorful.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Prosciutto Classico panino $5.50

Four-cheese tortellini $8.50

Small salad $2.50

Small gelato (amaretto and hazelnut) $2.50

Small gelato (gianduja and strawberry) $2.50

Total $21.50

Matthew Amster-Burton:

Dolce Vita

2123 Queen Anne Ave. N., 206-284-3460



Not recommended

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Thursdays-Fridays; 8 a.m.-midnight Saturdays; 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays.

No obstacles / major credit cards / beer and wine.