Aug. 28 2015 04:15 PM

Inventive mascarpone polenta and ragu dishes justify a trip

Paccheri-con-salsiccia-e-pomodori-al-forno
Paccheri con salsiccia e pomodori al forno
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

Nine out of 10 foodies will tell you chain restaurants suck. Not without good reason; but is it really so cut and dry? It's not as if L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon is thought of as a chain, even though there are nine of them. You don't have to dig deep to find foodie love for Tender Greens. And recently, Daniel Patterson (chef of San Francisco's Michelin-starred Coi) and Roy Choi (of revolutionary Los Angeles food truck Kogi) announced they are launching a fast-food concept with the oddly ambitious goal of producing the world's best 99-cent burger.

But for me the strongest proof of the blurring of that line was the fact I'd eaten at Little Itay's Davanti Enoteca (1655 India St., there is also a location in the Del Mar Highlands shopping mall) multiple times without knowing it was a chain. But five Davantis pretty much make it a chain. And with a total of more than 30 restaurants under Francesca's Restaurant Group ownership, it is clearly that.

Enotecas, in Italy were traditionally wine bars (the word translates literally as “wine library” that did not serve food. They have evolved, today, to include food for the table. And it is, perhaps, in that light that some of the best dishes at Davanti are under the “per la tavola” (for the table) section of its menu. Perhaps its single best dish is the mascarpone polenta with ragu-of-the-day. The waiter theatrically spreads the mascarpone-enriched polenta porridge across a wooden plank tableside before ladling the ragu in a wide swath across its middle. Whether that ragu is of slow-braised beef short ribs or a tomato-rich pork shoulder, the flavors are deep, soulful and comforting.

Another great per la tavola item is the focaccia di Recco (a town outside Genoa in Liguria) with honeycomb. The thin bread is stuffed with a witch's brew of different soft cow's milk cheeses and comes with piece of honeycomb which pairs brilliantly with the cheese and bread. Both of these shared appetizer dishes combine a seeming simplicity with a remarkable depth of flavor.

Davanti's pasta dishes are excellent too. Take the uovo in raviolo alla carbonara, described on the menu as giant ravioli with ricotta, spring pea, pancetta, egg and pecorino. In fact it is a delicious—if appetizer-sized—dish featuring a soft egg inside a single raviolo (not ravioli) with a Donald Trump-like combover coif of pea shoots. It is a technical triumph that would be a feature of any high-end tasting menu. If the size disappoints the flavor does not.

Perhaps Davanti's best pasta is the paccheri con salsiccia e pomodori al forno—giant rigatoni with sausage and oven-roasted tomatoes are a particular standout. A kiss of spice in the sausage plays off the sweetness and acid notes of the roast tomato's sweetness and acid notes. Crucially, though it was those big rings of perfectly al dente pasta that remained the star of the dish.

Does it really matter whether Davanti is a chain? It's one of the better—if not best—Italian restaurants in San Diego? Chain? Sure. But ultimately, what Davanti proves is that not all chain restaurants have to suck

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