Dining Out: Big at Heart

Perhaps only hard-working Steve DiFillippo, whose Davio's restaurant has managed to thrive despite several changes of address, could take the big old Paine Furniture site—a beautiful barn of a space in Park Square—and make it hop. The building is a siren: architecturally fascinating with two-story ceilings, soaring industrial columns, and large plate-glass windows facing Arlington and Stuart streets. But it's also dangerously huge. DiFillippo and company have kept its integrity and sweep while dividing it into several separate areas, each with a different feel. There's a luxuriously spacious bar with plenty of conversation areas and a long, serpentine counter you can eat at, and a glassed-in wine room at the back that faces the lobby of the attached skyscraper built on the site of the old Greyhound station. There are private rooms big enough for business meetings or rehearsal dinners, and there's a big open kitchen at the back.

It's exciting just to look at (despite the subdued olive-beige and gray-blue color scheme) and even more exciting to watch in action. People love being here, and on several visits just a few months after Davio's opened, I was struck by the variety of the hard-driving young capitalists who nightly jam the two big floors of nearby Grill 23 & Bar; suburbanites who liked the earlier Davio's locations; socialites who make Boston's cultural and charitable life go; well-dressed gay men of many ages. The good-looking crowd is a tribute to the hospitality of the DiFillippo crew, who stamp with warmth what could otherwise seem a corporate or hotel-like place.

Al Stankus, local wine writer and now Davio's wine steward, spotted me as he was tending his glass-walled wine racks. And DiFillippo, of whom no one in the food community has a bad word to say—quite a distinction in a sector that is envious even when the economy is good—took me on a tour. Every table was full and happy on a Saturday night, when DiFillippo found me a table at the last minute. It was surprisingly full at a midweek dinner, too. The service, the space between the tables, the plush but not ostentatious comfort, and the fashionable but not literal buzz of the place (you can actually hear your tablemates converse!) explain why.

I'm very happy that local owners have made a success of what could have been a white elephant. So nothing I say about the food should put a dent in that. But …

With the big exceptions of the wine and desserts, both in the hands of seasoned pros back in the game, the eager-to-please waiters brought to our tables an anthology of cooking errors. I'll pick out a few telling examples rather than run down a tedious full list. (I didn't go through every item on the very long menu, which is itself a tip-off of hard-to-realize ambition.) I'll also point out right away that the ingredients are fine and fresh, and that portions are big—in some cases really big—and give good value for the high prices. The problems are conceptual excess (a Boston hazard) and fundamental things like under- and overcooking and misjudged seasoning. I suspect (and hope) that these are closely related to the size of the opening crowds.

The menu at Davio's is really old-fashioned Continental, an amalgam of Italian and French dishes with an overlay of what's trendy at the moment or, in this case, what was trendy five years ago (sun-dried tomatoes, applewood-smoked chicken, port-balsamic glaze). One section lists “Davio's Classici,” and at my first dinner I thought I'd try spaghetti Bolognese ($18) to gauge a true classic.

The plate arrived in about 90 seconds. “I think they put your order first,” DiFillippo later admitted. But assembling pasta this fast means precooking it (something plenty of fancy restaurants do); the spaghetti was soft and limp, with not a hint of bite at the center. The hasty and perhaps overeager kitchen piled on too much sauce—a watery, bland meat sauce half a step up from what you might get at a cafeteria (that half-step being the quality of the ingredients). There was no melding of flavors, and no concentration of flavor, which should be the essence of a ragu. Stephen Brown, one of two executive chefs (the other is Eric Swartz), later told me that he cooks the sauce for two to three hours; perhaps the kitchen should take the Neapolitan approach and start at six. A pallid minestrone ($5) suffered from the same apparently quick cooking.

The linguini with shrimp ($21) was soft, too, but the San Marzano tomato sauce had a clean, fresh flavor and was served in a more restrained quantity. This was much closer to something Italian, even if Italians would never put four bland, giant shrimp at the corners and wouldn't cook the pasta to limp-noodledom, no matter how far north they lived.

The majority of the plates being served around me were covered with gigantic hunks of meat. I ordered Niman Ranch pork chop alla Milanese ($28) to celebrate the heartening local adoption of what is probably the country's best and most responsibly raised pork. The pork was as good as always: sweet, full-flavored, healthily red—not, thank goodness, the other white meat. But the cooking method guaranteed toughness: pounded a half-inch thick, much too thick to withstand the breading and high-heat sautéing. This chop needed soaking and tender braising.

A special of grilled tuna was a mighty brick of fish, higher than the highest filet mignon and of high quality—as it should have been for $30. The “Statler” chicken ($22) was a bland, semiboned chicken breast with smoked bacon, cannellini beans, and hard, big pieces of artichoke. The beans were another illustration of cooking methods to avoid, so undercooked they were hard to eat, and with too many undercooked sage leaves imparting an acrid, resinous aftertaste.

Of course, some things were good. The roasted eggplant with tomato, onions, and herbs that comes as a giveaway with the homemade country Tuscan and cherry-nut bread—the big kitchen has a pizza oven, and all bread is made by Mike Svelnis, who baked bread at Pignoli—has a bright flavor and is cooked to a just-right soft firmness. That giveaway plate, in fact, with white-bean salad (these beans were soft) and roasted fresh button mushrooms tossed with olive oil and herbs, might be the best and most coherent of the many dishes I sampled. The deep-fried chicken livers in a port-balsamic glaze ($9) look like big chocolate nuggets or, perhaps, black truffles, and are sweet and a bit salty; sure, they may have a whiff of a 1960s cocktail party, but they easily provide a meal.

My strategy for Davio's dining satisfaction? Prosciutto San Daniele and Garda olive oil ($10) or a fresh-made pizza (say, tomato and mozzarella, $9) to start, and chicken livers or a hunk of fish or meat (say, a grilled Niman Ranch double-cut pork chop, $25) after that. Put yourself in Al Stankus's hands and learn about wine; we were very happy with an Australian shiraz from Torbreck, a winery I didn't know but would have ordered on the basis of the name alone—”Woodcutter's Red”—very food-friendly and well priced at $42.

Or move straight to dessert. Tom Ponticelli is one of the handful of Boston pros (Judy Mattera and Lee Napoli are other members of this elite) whose restaurant residence I celebrate wherever it is. He's making terrific upgraded steakhouse desserts, or maybe I think steakhouse whenever I see a cart roll up with life-size examples of the desserts on offer. His saffron lemon panna cotta ($8) has a light velvet texture and potent but not overwhelming saffron kick. The chocolate semifreddo ($8) is still too hard — I'm on a campaign to get restaurants to serve semifreddo at the proper mousselike consistency and temperature—but with great flavor and a nice cookie base. What a hand Ponticelli has with cookies. I twice devoured his amaretti, biscotti, and crostata, and I'm comforted to know that the takeout shop in the lobby of the new building will sell biscotti, along with high-quality sandwiches.

The best thing about Davio's is its local-boy-makes-good aspect—especially in Park Square, which has become a chain-restaurant gulch. My reservations about the food will stay mine, from the look of things—and actual reservations at the big new Davio's will continue to be hard to get.