February 9, 2010

First-Bite Review: Caffe Davio

Caffe Davio, on East Carson Street on the South Side, is small, warm, and comforting. And it's BYOB. Great qualities for any restaurant.

And from there the overall experience is fair to good. The service, generally speaking, was adequate, but could be better with some small changes.

The most important part, the food, generally speaking, was good. For some people, this is the kind of place they would return to again and again (e.g., on my way back from the restroom, I heard a broad, muscular fellow proclaim "I'm in heaven" as he sliced into a veal chop). For me, once was enough.

Caffe Davio on Urbanspoon

I had read some comments on Urban Spoon that Caffe Davio had recently changed its menu and was now serving the typical "Goombah" food that can be had at any of the chain and non-chain Italian restaurants that infest many U.S. cities. I would argue that assessment isn't correct. This wasn't just red sauce and sickeningly fatty cream sauces and lots of breaded chicken.

That said, much of what is on the menu -- admittedly based on one visit -- is one-note cooking. You're not going to find new or innovative flavors or food pairings here. And, again, for some people that may just be fine and dandy.

Perhaps what defines Caffe Davio is the sheer volume of food. A trip here means that, if you so choose, you will have dinner for at least the next night, possibly two!

One problem with such volume -- aside from what I would argue is that it is an attempt to compensate for or obscure the limitations on flavor/texture/technique inherent in the food -- is that, as a diner, you're constantly distracted by the thought: "I have to be careful how much I eat of this course, because there are three more coming!"

Our biggest mistake was ordering an appetizer. I wish the waitress/hostess had advised us against this. She did explain that with your entree you also got a salad and a pasta dish. But I like to order an appetizer. It lets you probe the kitchen's repertoire. At Dinette, for example, the pizzas could be considered the star. But the appetizers -- whether they be a beef carpaccio with at least one unique component (e.g., nuts or a poached egg!) or, as my wife recently had, a grilled shishito pepper (who knew there was such a thing) with goat cheese bits and fried almonds -- are a whole world unto their own. To skip an appetizer at Dinette, you see, would be a huge mistake.

But back to Davio. Before the appetizer even came we received a large basket of quite delicious fresh bread, which was accompanied by three equally enjoyable dips: chickpea and roasted red peppers, white beans and basil, basil-infused olive oil. This was a nice way to start the meal, but already my wife and I were saying "We have to take it easy, there's a lot more food on the way."

The appetizer was Bay scallops carbonara, a large bowl of bay scallops with a medium-to-heavy cream sauce, big chunks of bacon, and peas. This was an entree masquerading as an appetizer. Yet, even so, it was well prepared - the scallops were tender and the sauce was flavorful without being overpowering. It actually made for a fourth dip for the bread. We ate maybe a third of it (not to mention more bread).

Salad: A huge plate of iceberg lettuce, feta, roasted red peppers, a sprinkling of white beans, with a balsamic vinaigrette. Nothing fancy or different, but, nevertheless, it tasted good. The iceberg was really crunchy and cool, and the beans were a nice touch. Maybe ate a third of it.

With our wine and the bread, we could have stopped here and been perfectly content.

Pasta: Each of us received a bowl of cavatappi (a longish, curly pasta) with a passable-to-good marinara, shaved Parmesan, and (again) fresh basil leaves. If ever there was an afterthought on a menu, this is it. If you want to do a pasta dish, do something special, something that cleans the palate and sets the stage for the entree. Something I'd give my kids on a weeknight does not meet that standard.

Entrees: For me, a New York Strip (I was going to order a pasta, but there was already a pasta side, right?), with melted fresh mozzarella on top, resting on a mound of sticky risotto, as if it had been sitting in a pot for too long. After a bite or two, I pulled off the fresh mozzarella, which had congealed into a sealant. Generally, the steak was properly cooked and tender, but a bit underseasoned.

For my wife, a gargantuan veal chop topped with melted fontina, accompanied literally by one-third head each of steamed cauliflower and broccoli. The bites I had of the veal chop were moist and flavorful. The fontina was a distraction. The cauliflower bite I took tasted overwhelmingly of garlic. Neither of us ate half of our meat. I took only a few bites of the risotto.

Having already eaten more in the previous hour than we would ever eat in an entire day, we figured we'd might as well go the Full Monty and split a desert. And that was actually a good choice. A marscapone cheese cake topped with berries: light, creamy, delicious.

Of course, desert isn't necessary, it turns out, because, little did we know, you also get as part of your meal house-made cookies: a few biscotti and a few long, thin lemon-flavored cookie the name of which I forget. With an espresso or desert liqueur, that would be a fine desert on its own.

Even with a gift certificate and bringing our own wine, the bill was not inexpensive. For that money (if you include the amount of the gift certificate), even if I had to purchase the alcohol at the restaurant, I could get a truly spectacular meal at a place like Eleven.

So, yes, for some Caffe Davio may indeed be restaurant heaven. For me, it was a one and done, leaving me feeling overly full (we didn't even eat the leftovers the next day) and thinking that this place is missing the bigger picture of what a quality Italian restaurant is supposed to be.


Jhonphilipp Yonan said...

Nice review! Been wanting to try. Heard of the volume. Curious about their brunch.

Fillippelli the (Wannabe) Cook said...

Thanks. Yeah, for good Italian food on the South Side, I'd stick with Dish.

foodie said...

Then dont go back! Caffe Davio is the best! People like you should stick to places like Eleven! Your not being there just leaves a vacancy for someone on the extensive waiting list! Its wonderful to have such an establishment located in the heart of South Side!!! Keep up the great work Caffe Davio, you truley are the best in pittsburgh

Fillippelli the (Wannabe) Cook said...

All in all, foodie, I'd say my review was pretty even handed, wouldn't you? My preference - let me stress MY preference - is for a greater focus on quality, not volume. And I never said the food was bad, just that I thought there was a lack of creativity and, in some cases, execution. Risotto should not be a sticky lump of overly salty rice, which is what I was served with my steak. A quality piece of beef does not need a heaping of cheese on it. That's the definition of poor execution.

I enjoyed a good bit of what I ate - which the review made clear - but for the price I think there are better options, several within walking distance of Caffe Davio, such as Dish or Cafe Du Jour of Le Pommier or Yo Rita... shall I go on?

Anonymous said...

We just had dinner at Caffe Davio for about the 15th time - they have a new chef and waitstaff. While the food was still very good, it doesn't compare to the product Chef Joe used to produce. The owner said Joe and his wife Rose opened a new place somewhere near Carnegie/Heidelberg - does anyone have any additional info of where this place might be or what it is called? My dad swears Joe cooked the best steak he has eaten in 22 years! I need to find him that experience again!

Thanks in advance