Written by Christopher Alice
Like any self-respecting cosmopolitan city, Prague has more than its fair share of Italian restaurants. A shame then, that so many people, even locals, flock to generic mass eateries with convenient, visible locations when bitten by the Mediterranean bug. Even more so given that the city is chock-full of authentic Italian gems hidden in plain sight just around the corner from the main tourist thoroughfares. Like La Vita é Bella. Only a couple steps from Pařížská Street and the Spanish Synagogue, LVB seems to be completely invisible to the throngs of travelers who pass it daily. Not that this is a bad thing. On most evenings the restaurant is barely populated, providing those in the know the opportunity to have a genuine Italian culinary experience (almost) all to themselves; the effect is even more pronounced during afternoons.
The menu offers such an exhaustive variety of dishes representing Italian regions from Sicily and Calabria all the way up to the Alps -and numerous weekly specials as well – that selecting one’s meal can easily turn into a 45-minute marathon of agonizing compromises and sacrifices. For starters, La Vita é Bella offers up the highest count of carpaccio-ed animals I’ve yet encountered in Prague, including such delicacies as swordfish and squid. Even more familiar cuts such as the tuna with arugola and sweetcorn are light and pleasant, if lacking the bold flavor of more exotic alternatives. Staples such as prosciutto with melon, bruschetta, and a perfectly-spiced salmon tartar served with toast and cherry tomatoes are available as well, but are prepared with fresher, higher-quality ingredients than in most establishments.
First courses are primarily comprised of various pasta and risotto dishes, all as well-prepared and presented as the antipasto offerings. Highlights include tortellini with cheese fondue and truffles, a deliciously creamy (if a bit heavy) comfort food, and a saffron risotto cooked to the perfect consistency, although as always more intriguing combinations await more adventurous diners, such as penne with cuttlefish and olives.
For a second course, gourmands would do better to avoid the bland – and in my experience, overcooked – steaks and opt for fish, the house specialty. Tuna, sole, the recommended sea bass – available both baked or in a salt crust – and other fish such as brill are of the highest caliber and exquisitely presented, and can be shared by two. Other entrées include succulent lamb chops with rosemary, veal dishes, and even rabbit Galatina with a spring salad. These dishes can be accompanied by any one of dozens of Italian wines, and a myriad of side dishes; the crunchy golden-brown roasted potatoes with rosemary are the perfect addition to virtually any entrée, while the spinach with garlic butter is…healthy. And if through all this you still somehow manage to save some room for a final course, traditional Italian desserts from classic tiramisu to a rich chocolate soufflé served in a shallow pool of sauce and topped with an absurdly large strawberry serve to permanently immobilize you.
Unfortunately, everything isn’t as divine as the food; holding La Vita é Bella back from the ranks of the truly great is a staid, sterile atmosphere lacking the warmth and coziness of other classy, but more “family-style”, Italian restaurants. While it’s clear the designers were going for a clean, modern look, the relentless white of walls and tablecloths under the track lighting invokes more memories of an art gallery than of Grandma’s kitchen, ironic considering the insipid floral artwork displayed. At least a small back garden is open during the summer months. Thankfully, the service is top notch; our numerous waiters and waitresses were exceedingly polite, quick and humorous, and seemed to be magically attuned to our slightest whims: ever available but never overbearing.
Roughly 50% more expensive than more frequented places such as Pasta Ambiente, La Vita é Bella isn’t cheap, but it’s still less expensive than Prague heavyweights like Pravda and Kampa Park – and more importantly, is worth every crown. Italian food may be everywhere, but it is rarely found in such staggering abundance and quality. A true find and actually a grand bargain when compared to restaurants of similar excellence but with a snobbier clientele, La Vita é Bella is, quite simply, one of the best Italian restaurants in Prague.