CUTLINE: SEARED SCALLOPS: This appetizer, served with six asparagus, artichoke tapénade, and
saffron mascarpone, is hard to resist.
This isn’t a restaurant. This is one of those novels that get made into a movie. A boy named Shingara Singh grows up in India, and at 16 moves to Germany to work in an Italian restaurant named Leonardo Da Vinci. The owners have no son, so he becomes the boy they never had. They teach him everything about Italian culture, and soon his Italian is better than his Hindi. He takes a new name, “Peppino,” comes to America, works in the kitchen of the House of Blues, finds another family Italian restaurant (La Campania in Waltham), and then teams up with a Polish girl to open a superb Italian restaurant in Boston’s South End. Bring up the acid-jazz soundtrack, roll the credits.
|Da Vinci Ristorante | 162 Columbus Avenue, Boston | Open Mon–Wed, 5–10 pm, and Thurs–Sat, 5–10:30 pm | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | Valet parking, $16 | Ramped access | 617.350.0007|
Maybe there’s a cameo role in there for the restaurant critic who writes a glowing review? The camera looks over my shoulder and pans to a basket of sliced Italian bread: soft inside, crusty outside. My hand dips the bread in some gray stuff as I deliver my line, “Ooh, eggplant spread, really good eggplant spread.” I move toward the other bread-basket accompaniment. Cut to the hand writing a note: “super-good extra-virgin olive oil.”
Since one member of our party arrived early, we ordered two silver-dollar-size crab cakes ($4) from the bar menu. They were a little overly fried but very appetizing. On the real appetizer menu, it’s hard to resist something like seared scallops ($13). There’s only two giant sea scallops, but also six asparagus tips in a saffron-mascarpone sauce, a swell artichoke “tapénade” (translation: thick dip), and “chips” of fried leek and tomato skin — all arranged lovingly on a long, rectangular plate. A portobello mushroom appetizer ($11) was served sliced and flavored with balsamic vinegar, with a salad of unusual greens and more tomato-skin chips. The organic green salad ($9) was lots more of the same, with some paper-thin parmesan, toasted almonds, and a hint of white-truffle oil.
One could also start with a “primi” order of pasta, as the Italians do. Our order of papardelle Boscaiola ($17) was excellent, obviously homemade chewy ribbons of pasta with a rich wild-mushroom gravy (trumpets, parmesan, and maybe some truffle oil, too). This is a small order, but a small eater who doesn’t share could make dinner of it.
Pasta can also be ordered in large sizes, which are not priced on the menu. A rigatoni Bolognese ($15/primi; $21/dinner size) was unusual in that the large tube pasta was housemade. The difference, again, was in the texture, which had some chew but not the hardness found at the center of al dente dried pasta. The meat sauce was classic, every bite richer and meatier than it looked.
The fish special our night was Arctic char ($25), a fine filet wrapped around heaps of asparagus tips, with a pavé (layered slices) of sweet and white potatoes. Visually attractive but not overcooked fish — and char is my favorite of all the farmed fish so far — is a rare gift. I wasn’t quite as impressed with a veal braccialettini special ($24), which was not one but two sausage-skinny veal rolls, served vertically. Here the veal was partially dried out, but the filling of cheese and herbs was well balanced, and the small stalks of surprisingly sweet broccoli rabe (like asparagus tips) more than made up for some dull veal, as did the gorgonzola-enriched polenta (just enough to tantalize, not enough to make me sleepy).
Anatra Alla Peppino ($26) is the cinematic take on duck two ways. The confit leg has become a useful cliché, but Peppino’s idea for the breast is a sauce of orange and marsala. It’s too sweet for some people, though I thought the citric acidity was refreshing. The accompanying starch was oven-roasted potatoes; a fine hand with gorgonzola again made them special.
The wine list is almost all Italian, with some older bottles at scary prices. Those under $40, such as my old friend the Dessilani Spanna ($38), seem fairly priced. Naturally, they have the full line of Da Vinci Chianti. In fact, we were able to compare the 2005 regular bottling ($8/glass) with the 2003 Riserva ($13/glass). The regular is traditional Chianti, light enough for a variety of foods, with good fruit flavor. The Riserva is much bigger all around, and in fact could use some age to soften the astringency. Save it for major meat. On the white side, 2006 Maso Canali pinot grigio ($12/glass) is the real thing, with the fresh, fruity aroma that pinot-grigio drinkers expect, plus a longer flavor on the palate and a bitter finish suitable for fish and some pasta dishes.