Jan. 23 2012 07:41 PM

Local outpost of popular Chicago-based chain's a little rough around the edges

A spritz and some happy-hour munchies
Photo by Amy T. Granite

After a year of construction delays, Davanti Enoteca—the 28th eatery for Chicago restaurateur Scott Harris—finally opened in Little Italy last August. (Harris has plans to open two more restaurants, adjacent to one another, in Del Mar Highlands next month.) Aside from the rumored delish Italian fare served small-plates style, I was equally curious about what all the growing fuss amounted to. So, early on a Friday night, I paid a visit with a dinner date. 

Inside, there's a host stand and two routes to go—straight ahead into a seeming walkway, made narrower by rows of two-top booths on each side, or to the right, where the center of the restaurant is a raised-platform bar that looks like it comfortably sits 10. There's an adjacent dining room more brightly lit and conducive to family outings, plus a large back patio and, of course, the hallmark India Street seats completed a couple weeks ago.

We were seated in the tunnel-like dining space, which wasn't too bad to start, but as it filled up, so went the volume, making it difficult to hear the dude whose legs pushed against mine under the table. Constant foot traffic sweeping the aisle; neighboring, loud conversations; and insufficient legroom reminded me of an uncomfortable train ride. Without windows.

The anchovy starter was an unfortunate mélange of salty bits that set the tone for the rest of the meal. A mini-mason jar, or vasi, holding creamy ricotta and black pepper to spread on thick pieces of toast was the best—and least best-prepared—item we ordered. It came with a disproportionate chunk of honeycomb, which I didn't mind, because the smooth, buttery cheese and rustic bread left little for want.

The $18 Waygu tri-tip verged on inedible. Unless a kitchen can execute medium rare every time, this tough cut is a risky menu choice that proved a failure well beyond its doneness. I couldn't even taste the high-grade meat because it was shrouded in salt. The oily mint “salsa verde” topping it smothered the mushrooms and radishes to the point of being indistinguishable.  

I left the restaurant bewildered. I'd heard and read consistently good things. But between overzealous seasoning and the uncomfortable atmosphere, I wondered, What am I missing here? 

I returned a couple of days later with a happy-hour state of mind. Regular menu items rotate in the discounted selection served from 4 to 6 p.m. daily. Since it was still light out, a friend and I sat on the back patio. The cabana-like booths, each equipped with its own heating device, seem fun for gathering friends to drink vino and nosh.

We each had a namesake spritz ($5), a bitter, bubbly concoction with prosecco and aperol, an orange liquor. Served in wine glasses with ice, these were nice.

I ordered the escarole salad ($4), which turned out to be a delicious bargain, with crisp greens, thinly sliced celery, bits of sweet apple, salty pecorino cheese and a light vinaigrette that worked, if a bit overboard with domineering dried oregano. Toasted hazelnuts were a great addition to the salad that I'd order again, during happy hour.

Cacio e pepe ($6) is spaghetti with a simple pan sauce of butter, cheese and coarse black pepper. It was a perfect al dente, but it gummed up rather fast in the brisk evening air. We also split the burger ($6), which was tasty despite meat that desperately needed salt (go figure!). 

They say over-salted food is the mark of a heavy-drinking or -smoking chef whose taste buds are shot. Was this the case Friday night? Who knows. Combined, my two experiences reflect an inconsistency that I have a hard time excusing, and, still, I don't know what all the fuss is about.

Amy blogs at saysgranite.com and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.


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