It looks like a Davio’s. It just doesn’t taste like a Davio’s.
Davio’s Cucina, a spinoff of Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse headed by chef Sean Canny, opened in June in the Showcase SuperLux in Chestnut Hill. The new restaurant is a little more relaxed than the original Davio’s, the menu slanted slightly more toward Italian and away from steakhouse. Mostly what this means is more pasta plus versions of classic Davio’s dishes for a buck or two less, with an ingredient or two removed or altered. Oh, and there’s pizza.
It’s a fine idea. Bolognese and a glass of wine followed by a big-screen blockbuster viewed from a cushy seat? Sold. The restaurant is often bustling, with an oval bar the social center of the room, cocktails flowing. There’s a menu of bar bites, and drinkers avail themselves of Davio’s beefy wine list. There are soaring windows and huge light fixtures in the dining room. At the tables, colleagues chortle over big business wins and fit, frosted-haired double-daters are evidence of the power of cardio over carbs. Gluten-free pizza, pasta, and more are also available.
But the food doesn’t live up to that at other Davio’s.
It has its moments. That Bolognese is unobjectionable, if not classic. It’s more of a meat sauce, tomato-based and rich with braised veal, beef, and pork, served over tagliatelle. Like all of the pasta dishes, it is available as an entree or first course; the smaller portion is big enough to serve as a main dish.
There’s a pleasant little salad of chopped beets formed into a round, topped with microgreens and served beside a whip of goat cheese. The beets don’t have that fashionable we-came-straight-from-the-farmers’-market glow; there’s no rainbow of colors here. These are old-school blood-red roots, but the plating still has visual appeal, and the flavors never fail.
Lobster risotto with asparagus and herbs features plenty of meat and grains with bite. It’s inhalable, which it ought to be for $31. Restaurants continue to sell lobster, currently abundant and cheap, as a luxury ingredient; consumers continue to accept the premise.
Chicken under a brick features juicy meat and crisp skin, celery root puree and Brussels sprouts leading the dish into cooler weather. It’s one of the better dishes at the table. And pizza topped with arugula and calamari is a winner, the rings of squid encased in airy batter and tender as can be.
But good toppings can hide bad bones. An unadorned margherita pie reveals the flaws of pizza here, despite the fine show taking place beside the oven, where a chef easily spins and stretches dough. The crust at Davio’s Cucina is thin but tough, yet still a soggy center gives way beneath sauce and cheese. Angel hair pasta with a sauce of San Marzano tomatoes and fresh basil also proves simple isn’t always best, and can be harder than it looks. It tastes like cafeteria food. Kobe beef meatballs would be right at home on the same plastic tray. A deconstructed lasagna with chicken and mushrooms has congealed by the time it arrives, so that the top layer of cheese is a lid that comes off all at once when one cuts in. These are the kinds of dishes where a place like Davio’s Cucina should shine — simple, casual, happy-making.
But that’s not really the chain’s aesthetic. The original Davio’s are somewhat more-ornate restaurants, where a little too much is just enough, known for Eurofied spring rolls in flavors like Philly cheesesteak and Buffalo chicken. They’re on this menu, too. So are crispy chicken livers, fried so they’d be right at home on a pupu platter, with a sweet Port-balsamic glaze. Steaks and chops are also present; although a 16-ounce prime aged rib-eye is less flavorful and more tender than one would expect from the cut, it is perfectly cooked to order.
That’s the exception. Grilled halibut gasps for moisture, dried out beside spinach, turnips, and roasted tomatoes. Even braised short ribs are dry. Perhaps they spent too much time under a heat lamp. Service is congenial, but on some visits there are long spells between courses and check-ins.
At the end of the meal, a dessert cart rolls around, a retro custom that deserves a comeback. For one thing, it’s an effective way of convincing guests they need the dessert sampler, which includes an array of wee sweets, from whoopie pies (dry) to cannoli (delicate and lovely). The servers seem to want everyone to order the “marscapone” cheesecake (“it’s mascarpone!” stage-whispers the 9-year-old at the table). “It’s my favorite,” they each declare sincerely. The cake is going for a savory-sweet thing, with rosemary and pickled grapes that are wrinkling their way into obsolescence. We’ll take the cannoli.
For pre-movie pizza, pasta, and drinks, Davio’s Cucina is convenient and pleasant. It’s just not particularly inspired. (And Shake Shack and the relocated Bernard’s provide stiff competition nearby.) There is better Italian out there. For that matter, there are better Davio’s, too.
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