As a spice-loving Thai-wannabe, I usually bypass dishes that utilize less than five ingredients. No ginger, lime, or jalapenos? I’ll pass. No cumin, paprika, turmeric, or cardamom? Hell no. In a recent effort to tame my chili-addicted palette, I’ve increased my consumption of simpler foods by focusing on good ingredients and humble recipes. And nothing embodies simple cooking more than Italian cuisine. Unfortunately, most Americanized Italian food is a goddamn (but delicious) shame: eggplant lasagna smothered with mozzarella, pasta Bolognese topped with three cups of parmesan cheese, pizza so oily they slide like hockey pucks on your plate.
As an Italian food novice, I wanted to step out of my Buca di Beppo comfort zone without immediately having to consume a pancetta wrapped rabbit leg. So while looking for a dinner spot near UIC last week, I decided to stop by Davanti Enoteca, a part of Scott Harris’ enormous restaurant empire. No Volare or Coco Pazzo, but at least it wasn’t Olive Garden.
Traditionally, the main meal in Italy is multi-course: two or three plates of small-portioned pasta, some meat and vegetables, a little bit of bread. Davanti’s menu incorporates these small plate “starters” (including jars and boards) but also includes larger “shareables” such as pasta and pizza. Eager to sample as much of the menu as gastronomically possible, I ordered the following feast:
Mascarpone polenta and pork ragù
A mixture of pork sausage, crunchy chickpeas and fresh broccoli rabe, the ragu hit all major flavor profiles. The mascarpone polenta alone lacked that distinct buttery punch, but when folded into the ragu, it created a creamy and texturally-complex concoction that reminded me of eating mashed potatoes and Thanksgiving stuffing.
Focaccia di Recco (Ligurian style baked focaccia with fresh soft cow cheese)
Unique to the provincial town of Recco, Italy, this bubbly and crispy “focaccia” tasted like a gourmet cream cheese and matzo cracker sandwich. Topped with fresh honeycomb drizzles, the crunchy shell crackled exquisitely upon my first bite into the salty and tangy interior of molten cheese.
Crispy pork belly with plum mostarda
The sweet plum mostarda added just enough acid and sweetness to balance out the savory layers of gooey fat and meat, although I found the dish somewhat salty.
Prosciutto e Rucola Pizza (prosciutto di parma, fresh mozzarella, fontina, arugula)
It tasted just like a thin crust cheese pizza topped with salty prosciutto would.
Riccio di Mare e Granchio (linguine, sea urchin, crab)
I knew from the moment my eyes laid upon this dish that the linguine was soul-crushingly al dente. Garnished with spicy spring onions and bathed in buttery sea urchin, this little nest of noodles nearly doubled my resting heart rate.
Maiale e Ricotta Gnudi (pork cheek, ricotta gnudi, spring onion)
Alone, the gnudi and pork cheek were unspectacular, but together, tasted quite delicious. Biting into the pillowy clouds of gnudi released a rich pasta taste that paired quite well with savoriness of the porky broth.
Tagliatelle con Fave (smoked hock, tomato, pecorino crotenese)
Lightly topped with flaky pecorino, these long flat ribbons wrapped around chunky pieces of smoked hock was a flavorful classic.
Pesce Davanti (seared halibut, fennel, grapefruit, castelvetrano olive)
My fork easily pierced through the lightly-seared halibut, its flaky white flesh gliding into a salty sauce of fennel and grapefruit. Although I found the dish delicately-composed and well-executed, I ended up dousing the filet with chili flakes and pepper.
After my Davanti dinner, I was quite proud of myself for eating (and liking) as much as I did. Simple Italian cooking may be tough to swallow, but when executed properly, leaves little room for criticism. And Executive Chef Richard Ginn, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, cooks Italian well:
What’s your cooking philosophy?
My cooking philosophy is to keep it simple and non-pretentious and to always keep learning.
How did you end up at Davanti cooking Italian food, given you Southern roots?
Although Charleston has a great food scene, I wanted to move to a larger city with more options for evolving and growing as a chef. I worked for Chef Ken Vedrinski in Charleston at a small Trattoria which was a huge inspiration for me to focus solely on Italian techniques, specifically pasta. Southern food and Italian food have a lot in common because they both incorporate what is seasonal and close to home and both are evolved from poverty and utilizing commonly found ingredients
Describe how you conceptualize new dishes. Do you come up with new dishes for the menu?
It is always an ingredient first that is available that gives inspiration. Then for us it is what complements that ingredient without taking away from the specific flavor that we want to highlight. Me and Chef Jaysen from the downtown location will bounce ideas off of each other to open our thoughts up to different prespectives. Also listening to staff about their thoughts is huge, and it gets everyone behind what we do.
What’s the relationship between the chef, his/her staff, and management?
The relationship between chef and staff is one of respect first. If you are not respected, you will fail. The restaurant is a collaboration of many, not just the chef. People have to feel that you will work alongside them and that they are a part of the whole. In this profession, we see each other more than family or friends, so it is an important relationship to build.
Hardest part about being a chef?
Having restraint and knowing that you are not cooking for yourself but other people. Taking criticism and knowing how to use it to grow.
What’s your biggest pet peeve in the kitchen?
Laziness or poor organization
What’s one thing people don’t know about the restaurant industry that you wish they knew?
How much time goes into one dish from raw product to the finished plate. How much prep goes into each item beforehand to make it to the table.
Look, I had a wonderful dinner. But Davanti is a chain, you protest! Yes, but given the scale of the restaurant, I commend their relative authenticity and commitment to sourcing as locally as possible. Given the horrific failure rate in the restaurant industry, I believe successful empires like Davanti deserve some level of respect and admiration.