Frill Factor

With Da Vinci, an acclaimed Waltham chef brings his act to the big city, with warm welcomes, attention to detail…and food that can't quite shake its suburban feel.

da vinci

Photo by Heath Robbins

Boston can always use a new take on Italian cooking, especially after the biz-ification of Beacon Hill’s Toscano, long the city’s sole standby for simple and genuine spaghetti and minestrone. Where can we go for true Italian food—not Italian-American food, soul nourishing as that can be?

Sadly, not to Da Vinci, the well-meaning, scrubbed-up restaurant that opened recently on Columbus Avenue next to the Castle, in a big space that has been host to several failures (Piattini, Grillfish). You’ll want to pull for the team at Da Vinci when you receive the warm greeting of Wioletta Zywina, the Polish-born first-time restaurateur, and watch a smiling Shingara Singh (a.k.a. Chef Peppino), the Indian-born chef and co-owner, circulate among all the tables, thanking every diner for coming. I want to pull for them, too. Singh, who as a teenager trained with an Italian family in Germany (their restaurant was called Leonardo da Vinci), did his out-of-town tryout for 10 years cooking at La Campania in Waltham, one of a cluster of highly regarded upscale Italian restaurants that have flourished there. He met Zywina when she was moonlighting as a waitress while attending business school. This is a crew that’s new to Boston, and we need to be open to newcomers.

They picked a tough location. The block isn’t really Park Square, and it’s not quite the South End. Da Vinci is around the corner from Via Matta, which hums along with its winning amalgam of glamour and citified Italian fare; a block from Davio’s, the suave, masculine dining room catering to the professional crowd and serving huge portions of Italian-continental food; and down the street from Maggiano’s, the tourist’s big-feed delight. Those incumbents, with their local and national track records and long experience, might well eat Da Vinci for lunch.

The truth is, Da Vinci makes very good food for the suburbs (there, I said it). Like so much food in successful fancy restaurants outside the city, it’s pretty, a little wan, and ultimately unmemorable. Singh’s menu is more individualistic than that of any of his neighbors, and certainly more handmade. Nobody next door or down the street is visibly fussing over your plate in the kitchen, or anxiously circulating to see that you really like what you ordered and offering to make it again if you don’t—sometimes, in fact, spontaneously sending out a re-do if the sous-chef doesn’t get it just right the first time. But the only thing that would make me recommend Da Vinci over, say, Davio’s—the neighbor it most closely resembles in its warm colors, comfortable couches and chairs, plush carpet, and open kitchen—is that personal attention. If I want an original take on Italian food with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients—which Singh cares about—and need to stay in this part of town, I’ll go to Anthony Susi’s new South End transplant of his popular Sage. Da Vinci’s heartfelt intentions don’t match its big and slick aesthetic.

Its suburban origins show in unnecessary frills, like an appetizer of “carpaccio” ($8), machine-sliced pears soaked in balsamic vinegar and blueberry and pomegranate juices and served over microgreens with slices of two kinds of Gorgonzola, sweet and piquant. Gussied up and silly, it mystified our table, which assumed the pears were meat. Grilled portobellos ($11) are similarly soaked in balsamic vinegar, which detracts from their fine mushroom taste, and presented with arugula and prosciutto. Arancini filled with buffalo-milk mozzarella ($8) are bland but good—Singh fries them in olive oil, and the rice croquettes are nicely crusty and nongreasy. Yet the chef can’t resist cutting them in half and serving them like a cracked egg over a wreath of more baby arugula. It’s adorable, a picture of Easter brunch from a ladies’ magazine. The point, though, is the surprise of the cheese—which is supposed to form strings when you cut into the ball and lift a piece to your mouth—and the heat of the croquette. These arrive cool.

Scallops with homemade artichoke tapenade ($13) don’t gain much from mascarpone-saffron sauce, but they at least taste as nice as they look, and a plate of subtle house-cured smoked salmon, little white anchovies, and fresh baby octopus ($12) is the most straightforward and, not coincidentally, best appetizer.

The homemade pastas, too, are made with fresh ingredients—but are sometimes disappointing. Best are the firm, not rubbery, nuggets of potato gnocchi in a simple tomato sauce with small, half-melted cubes of mozzarella ($15), and rigatoni with homemade Bolognese ($15), though the sauce was a bit winey and needed to cook longer. Very wide pappardelle ribbons ($17) came with plenty of fresh chanterelles (Singh told me of his affinity for mushrooms, something I’d guessed), but were too redolent of truffle oil.

The main courses are the most successful, particularly a terrific duck dish two ways ($26), offering an herb-and-garlic-marinated breast that tastes like tender steak, and a soft but not mushy confited duck leg, less greasy and stringy than most local versions. The broccoli rabe sautéed with olive oil and garlic makes a perfect match, and if the sweet-and-sour poached cipollini and pear are a touch too much, the dish is still one I could eat often. So is the exemplary veal chop ($35)—not the kind of jawbreaking, wallet-busting behemoth chefs seem to need to show off with these days, but an ample yet modest piece of meat in a simple, old-fashioned continental chicken-stock-based sauce flavored with shallots and thickened with cream. It’s fancy food that feels like a special night out.

Among desserts, the chocolate soufflé is the best of the generally overly fussy, underflavored options (all $8). Singh brought us a second because his sous-chef hadn’t let the first one rise high enough. We liked the sweet ooze of both, and felt indulged and cared for. The fruit crostata, rather than being the traditional homey lattice-top dessert of pie crust with fruit jam, is presented here as a fancified version with puff pastry and out-of-season plums and berries—making for a passable fruit tart, but not a crostata.

And we felt a bit lonely in a spacious restaurant where, on one visit at 10:30 on a Monday night, we were the only diners. We’ll see whether the out-of-towners around Park Square will discover this kinder, gentler alternative to big-city dining, and whether the fans from the suburbs who understandably miss the warm, welcoming chef and owner will keep coming downtown to wish them well—and keep them afloat.

162 Columbus Ave., Boston, 617-350-0007.