Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Restaurant of His Own: Da Vinci, Boston

I keep thinking about the pasta Bolognese. I have eaten this particular dish many times. I even wrote a post about how easy it was to cook a version at home. My husband often talks dreamily about one bowl we had steps from the food market in Florence, Italy. But the Bolognese at Da Vinci in Boston, served on homemade rigatoni, was as good as it gets. Deep, rich and meaty without being overpowering, the beef and tomatoes had simmered so gently as to be completely tender and almost creamy. The pasta itself was just perfect and the portion was enough to enjoy it without feeling full.

This dish is reflective of the best of Da Vinci, an Italian restaurant in Boston, situated walking distance from the Theater District, the South End and the Boston Common. Peppino, chef and owner, literally cooks every item from scratch. As you sit down you are handed his soft focaccia with caramelized onions. It is served with a basil infused olive oil and a pureed white bean dip. Peppino often steps out of the kitchen (in plain view of the customers) to check in and say, "hello." It is easy to appreciate his dedication to this place and his food. The service also shows another layer of care that is put into this restaurant. (We were, though, invited by Chef Peppino to eat at Da Vinci this time.)

The pastas are one of Peppino’s specialties and it would be a mistake to leave without having some. Best, he offers two different sizes. The small is certainly enough for meal, especially with an appetizer.

Each night, Peppino offers a pasta sampler and tonight's included the Bolognese, a gnocchi and the special: Short Rib Ravioli. (Pictured at the top of this post, right below the Bolognese) My husband loves short ribs, as any regular reader of this blog knows! I, though, can only eat a few bites as they are so rich. The idea of serving them as one ravioli is not only brilliant, but reflective of the thought Peppino puts into his food. It was served with just enough aged balsamic to provide both acid and sweetness as well as some microgreens to make it taste light. It was delicious.

The gnocchi were also memorable. I have never eaten ones that were so light and tender. They were served with fava beans, prosciutto and frisee. The dish as a whole never quite came together for me, but that didn't stop me from devouring the gnocchi themselves.

My husband loved his veal chop. Big enough for a Flinstone, it was cooked perfectly and was both tender and flavorful. I devoured the grilled broccoli rabe which were sweet, rather than bitter. I also enjoyed his side dish: a sauté of garlic, sun dried tomatoes and mushrooms with potatoes. It was a nice change from the standard mashed potatoes.

For appetizers, my husband could not resist trying the fried squash blossom with ricotta on polenta. The batter was light enough to let the subtle flavor of the blossom through. The polenta was creamy and was balanced by the chopped tomatoes on top. FoodieDaddy loved it so much that I was only able to get away with a few bites.

We also tried the deconstructed Caesar salad. The romaine heart was served with creamy dressing and large shavings of an excellent Parmesan on top. While that is typical, less so was the fried, poached egg on the side, along with delicious white anchovies and a phenomenal balsamic strewn at the base. Although the dish was not perfect (the lettuce was a bit chilly, the dressing a bit heavy), once I broke into the egg, chopped up the anchovies and tried the balsamic, I was pretty content. It was worth the work.

We also tried an antipasto platter. It had a few elements-slices 3 meats: a chewy and subtlety delicious sopresseta, a deep red and rich capocolla and a peppery bresaola. I enjoyed each meat, though I would definitely recommend sharing the dish with one to two others as it is quite filling. The quail egg tasted like…egg and the eggplant vinaigrette was a bit too acidic for us.

The desserts were one of the fine touches of this place for a few reasons. First, they were delicious. But part of what made them particularly good was that they were so emblematic of the best cooking here: not fancy, not pretentious but just wonderful and, again, made from hand. The gelatos were delicious. My husband loved the vanilla-pure simplicity, but I enjoyed the peach which tasted as if summer was already here.

We tried a chocolate soufflé. It was much cakier than a soufflé to the point that it might be more apt to call this a molten chocolate cake. That being said, it was clearly cooked to order and was deep and chocolaty without being too sweet. Add the gelato and it was pretty heavenly.

I had two favorites, though. First, a peach cobbler that was also cooked to order. It seems odd to rave about such a classic dish-was this consisted of fresh peaches (where did Peppino get these?) with just enough crumbled topping to let the peaches shine, rather than sugar. I could not get enough of this.

However, the dish that really stood out was even more simple. It was, for me, the ultimate sundae: more of that gelato, but this time it was topped with strawberries and an incredible balsamic reduction. (The third picture at the top of the post.) Peppino later explained that he takes good balsamic vinegar and reduces to a syrup with brown sugar and coriander. The result-a deep, dark caramel that brought out the flavor of the strawberries rather than masking them. It was just so good.

We tried one more (part of a sampler platter, but yes, at the end of this meal we were SO full!). A homemade apple crostada. Consisting of a layer of puff pastry with caramel and apples it was good, but it paled compared to the other desserts.

Since we went, I have continually asked myself: Is this babysitter worthy? And I really, really want to sell you on this place. I want to yell, "Go there NOW" to enjoy Peppino's warmth, kindness and, most of all, his delicious cooking. And this place, in and of itself, is definitely babysitter-worthy. In fact, if you moved this restaurant to the suburbs and lowered the prices by about 10 percent, people would be beating down the door. But, here is where I am torn-this place is expensive (the average main dish is $30.00). It isn't that the food isn't worth it. In many ways, the food is very, very good and the fact that it is all made by hand certainly makes it special. But in addition to the food, you have to add in the price of a babysitter and, unless it is your lucky night, $16.00 for valet. So, here is my compromise-go from Monday through Thursday (or before 6 on Fridays and Saturdays) and take advantage of the $35.00 prixe fixe. It is one of the great deals in the city as you can choose from almost the entire menu. The same 3 dishes would cost over $50.00 the rest of the time! Take the T or the commuter rail and you will save even more. And as you eat your bolognese you will be very happy you did it.

1 comment:

  1. The meal you've chronicled here looks and sounds delicious! I've had a hankering for good Italian lately (local pizza just ain't cutting it anymore) so I plan to check Da Vinci out. Maybe on a night when my mother-in-law can babysit...