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“When I talk about a great dish, I often get goose bumps. I’m like, whoa, I’ll never forget that one.
The Italians are just like that. It’s not all about food. It’s part of the memory.”
When discussing my upcoming trip to Boston with Dave Hurayt, it evoked a nostalgic sentiment in a fellow gastronome whose opinion on food I respect. As a graduate student matriculating at one of the fine universities in the “Cradle of Modern America,” Dave knew where his priorities lay. Academic pursuits aside, Dave’s priorities included discovering the best restaurants in Boston, a pursuit I engaged in myself when living there from 1977-1979.
One of Dave’s favorite Boston restaurants was Davio’s which he describes as being “as perfect as anything you’re likely to find here or in italy, Boston having some of the best Italian restaurants this side of Napoli.” Dave remembered the pasta as “floating off the plate” and “incredibly lovely,” “as good as anything I ate in Italy.” All rousing endorsements, indeed, but what sold me on a visit to his favorite Italian restaurant were his comparisons to an Italian grandmother’s cooking. When someone evokes the “grandma sphere” you’ve got to listen.
Davio’s does indeed have an impressive pedigree. Where The Locals Eat, the self-proclaimed “Web’s only guide to the 100 best local restaurants, reviews, and ratings for America’s top 50 cities” named Davio’s the “Best Italian” restaurant in Boston. Considering the plethora of outstanding Italian restaurants in Boston, that’s an amazing accolade, made even more impressive by the fact that Davio’s isn’t within the confines of Boston’s North End, sometimes called “Little Italy,” a vibrant and thriving neighborhood replete with restaurants, most of them Italian.
Davio’s is on the fringes of the Theater District and within easy walking distance of Boston Common, one of America’s first public parks, founded in 1634. Even at its first site on Newbury Street, Davio’s was several miles away from Boston’s North End, an illustration that not all of Boston’s fabulous Italian restaurants are clustered in one small section of the city. The new instantiation of Davio’s occupies the first floor of the Paine Furniture Building. In fact its window frontage more closely resembles an upscale jewelry store than it does a restaurant. There’s absolutely nothing gaudy or flamboyant about the signage.
Step inside, however, and class shows. The welcome area includes comfortable couches and booths which provide an excellent vantage point from which to gawk at the power-suits walking in. The sprawling 9,000 square-food restaurant is a marvel with its high ceilings, massive columns, cornice moldings, hardwood floors and eighteen-foot windows. The most brightly illuminated area is the restaurant’s focal point, an enormous open kitchen which fronts a bakery in which both pastry chef and bread baker prepare all the desserts and breads.
One of the reviews I read about Davio’s pointed out the “palpable energy here, a pride of place.” From the moment we walked in, everyone–from the greeters to the wait staff–seemed to make it their personal mission to ensure we had more than a great meal, but a great experience, the type of which inspired the Mario Batali quote with which I started this review.
The tables are sheathed in perfectly starched white tablecloths. Place settings are perfectly situated and follow that complicated protocol which dictates where the salad fork is set relative to the butter knife. For a guy who considers the spoon an all-purpose utensil, it’s something I appreciate, but don’t exactly understand.
Davio’s menu is the perfect compromise when the Italophile and the carnivore dine together. It presents a sophisticated take on the very best Italian dishes as well as steakhouse classics with a menu that is includes elements both elaborate and simple. It’s a menu that inspires double-takes and more than twice the normal time to decide because there are so many tempting items beckoning you.
While you contemplate the menu, a beautifully appointed wire basket of bread will be delivered to your table. It’s the type of bread for which you’d gladly pay steep appetizer prices. Accompanying the thickly sliced Italian bread is a tri-sectioned relish plate of complementary black and green olives, an eggplant-tomato relish and a hot goat cheese infiltrated with a tinge of red pepper.
It’s not often bread makes the type of impression this one did. The bread is wonderfully airy and sliced so that the only crust encumbering your enjoyment is at its top and bottom. Its sliced thickly enough so that you can spread a sheen of the just discernibly piquant goat cheese and top that with the eggplant-tomato tapenade. This is a winning combination.
From the Insalate section of the menu comes the best plate of bufala mozzarella, vineripe tomatoes, fresh basil and olive oil I can remember having. What made this plate stand out is the utter freshness permeating every single morsel. The bufala mozzarella, made from the milk of domestic water buffaloes rather than from cow’s milk, is rich and creamy and when you cut into it, releases a white liquid with a bouquet of milk enzymes. Unlike some mozzarella whose primarily benefit is adding texture, bufala mozzarella has a discernibly wonderful flavor.
The plate includes two vineripe tomatoes, one with a reddish hue and the other more orange than red. Both are sweet and mildly acidic, but what was most impressive is their freshness. They have a farmer’s market quality. Ditto for the basil which has that lively quality more than vaguely reminiscent of menthol or spearmint. The flavor combinations are inspired.
As an Italian Steakhouse, Davio’s combines the very best of both, offering chophouse quality meats with world-class Italian food. The caserecci (Italian for homemade) menu includes everything from grilled seasonal vegetables to pan-roasted lobster. For the meat lover, porcine perfection is available in the form of a grilled Niman Ranch pork chop glazed with a blood orange shallot marmalatta served with parmigiana potato puffs. The parmigiana potato puffs are melt-in-your-mouth light and fluffy, almost cloud-like in their texture. Alas, only three accompanied the chop; another nine would have been perfect.
The pork chop is substantial, easily an inch and a half thick yet the grill master managed to prepare it to my exacting specifications. At medium, the edges are well-crusted with a nice crispy char imbued with the fragrance of wood smoke. Cut into it and there is just a hint of pink with all the juiciness you want from a pork chop. Amazingly the blood orange shallot marmalatta penetrated the thick pork chop, imparting a tangy-sweet flavor combination that melds beautifully with the savory pork. Not only was it an outstanding marmalade, it would have made a great salad dressing, dessert topping, maybe even beverage.
Having never had pasta which “floated off the plate” as Dave described it, we were presented with an array of arousing options. Calling loudest was an entree from the Farinacei (fine meal made of wheat flour) section of the menu: fresh rigatoni, oven roasted tomatoes, green garlic, arugula and Burrata cheese. What a dazzling combination of complementary and contrasting flavor components.
First there’s the pasta, a culvert sized noodle prepared to al-dente perfection. The burrata, an unnaturally soft, fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella, is ethereal in its texture. The peppery and nutty wilted arugula brings a zesty flavor that catches your attention and teases your taste buds. The green garlic is milder than its mature counterpart and with little of the characteristic bitterness of clove garlic.
The flavor profile is out of this world, definitely something that floated off the plate, fortunately not to the heavens, but to our awaiting mouths. This is simply one of the very best pasta dishes we’ve ever had, an antithesis to the red sauce we dearly love. Thank you Dave Hurayt!
Although portions are substantial and filling, you’ve absolutely got to leave room (loosen your belt, undo a button, unzip your fly a little if you have to) for dessert. The dessert tray of homemade confections is sinfully good even though some of the desserts are simply named, not christened with some descriptive name that fails to live up to its billing. Take for example the warm chocolate cake, a muffin shaped cake with molten insides. The thermal heat of the molten chocolate inside the cake is cooled off with a scoop of frigid vanilla ice cream. This is a rich, truly wonderful dessert.
Better is the banana chocolate bread pudding, a cubed banana croissant with sliced bananas in a rum-laced custard. Wholly unlike any bread pudding we’ve ever had, it’s the type of dessert that will have you closing your eyes and luxuriating in the purity of its goodness. It’s a dessert you’ll want to savor slowly so as to take it all in and not miss a morsel. Much like the rest of our meal at Davio’s, it’s something about which we’ll reflect longingly for a long time. I can fully understand how Dave feels about this restaurant.
Dining at Davio’s isn’t solely about having an extraordinary meal. It’s about creating a memorable experience you’ll cherish, the type of experience which will elicit swoons and smiles when you reflect upon it.
Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse
75 Arlington Street
LATEST VISIT: 21 September 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET: Bufala Mozzarella, Vineripe Tomatoes, Fresh Basil, Olive Oil; Fresh Rigatoni, Oven Roasted Tomatoes, Green Garlic, Arugula, Burrata Cheese; Grilled Niman Ranch Pork Chop, Blood Orange Shallot, Marmalatta, Parmigiano Potato Puffs; Warm Chocolate Cake With Molten Center; Cubed Banana Croissant