This could be dinnertime at the Medicis': Italian food in a room filled with columns, statuary, and excerpts from Leonardo Da Vinci's works. But then the candlelight flickers, and the acid-jazz stylings of Jamiroquai give way to the world's most generic house beat. Those Medici! Always shaking their groove thangs.
Da Vinci creates a cushy version of Renaissance Italy, then knocks the illusion over with its iPod. The room looks like hushed romance and lubricated business dinners but sounds like a disco. On a Saturday, voices bounce off the vaulted ceilings and balance out the soundtrack. But on a Wednesday, there aren't many voices here to bounce. The main volume Da Vinci's doing midweek is musical.
This isn't because of the food, which is often good and sometimes great. It isn't because of the staff, which is warm and attentive. Perhaps it's because of the neither-here-nor-there location, between the South End and Park Square in the space that was previously Piattini. It's a stone's throw from the T yet out of the loop.
It's certainly not because of the chef. Shingara Singh, known (a la Madonna) as Peppino, used to cook at La Campania in Waltham; now he has his own place with co-owner Wioletta Zywina, and his city-dwelling followers no longer have to make that trek. He was born in India, spent his young adulthood in Germany at an Italian restaurant called Leonardo Da Vinci, then came to the United States. This far-flung trajectory isn't visible in his food: Italy is the only land that lands on your plate or in your wineglass. And on many visits, Peppino himself lands at your table, dropping by to say hello and see how your dinner is. He's a warm presence in the room.
His hospitality is felt again when you delve into the bread, which is far from the pro forma basket found at so many restaurants. Da Vinci's serves as a prelude to the meal. It's a pile of fluffy-chewy focaccia and slices from a crisp-crusted Italian loaf, baked daily at the restaurant and served with olive oil and dip. On a recent night, the olive oil was infused with the green perfume of basil; the dip was a sweet and mellow mash of roasted zucchini, more olive oil, and mint. We ate it all and asked for more.
Mint also finds its way into an artichoke tapenade served perched on a purple radicchio leaf like Venus on the half-shell. It's paired with scallops and asparagus spears in an appetizer both lovely and tasty. Pear "carpachio" (at Da Vinci, the Italian is butchered in house) is thin slices of fruit with micro-greens and gorgonzola, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and a blueberry vinaigrette. At first bite, the blueberry flavor is a bit strange, but the combination grows on the palate. More gorgonzola would help - it's doled out in dots the size of Candy Buttons. Grilled portobello mushrooms are juicy and flavorful, accented by their stuffing of prosciutto and fontina. The mushrooms are served on wilted arugula with a balsamic reduction.
Da Vinci's pasta is made fresh each day, and it's excellent. Pappardelle are slippery, silky ribbons entangled with sauteed yellow-foot chanterelles, topped with shaved Parmesan and a bit of truffle oil. We'd mop up the chanterelle-scented juice at the bottom of the plate if we hadn't eaten all our bread. Gnocchi are so tiny they look like kernels of hominy. They're chewy yet light, topped with similarly sized pieces of buffalo mozzarella and a fresh tomato sauce. You can get the gnocchi on their own or in a pasta tasting with rigatoni Bolognese and half-moon-shaped pasta stuffed with mushrooms, spinach, and ricotta. The Bolognese is excellent, as deeply meaty as a good stock, but the stuffing in the half-moons is bland. Any flavor it has is dominated by the sweet, bisque-like corn sauce the pasta is served with. This might be a topping to save for summer, when just-picked ears could redeem it.
The pasta tasting has the obvious appeal of allowing you to sample more dishes, but it has a drawback, too: The rigatoni are significantly better when ordered on their own, for the simple reason that they come in a bowl, which keeps the Bolognese warm. The tasting looks pretty, the pasta trio served in a row on a rectangular white plate, but it cools down fast. Da Vinci's menu is judiciously small-scale - eight appetizers, four pasta selections, five entrees. It's then augmented by daily specials. On the menu, the veal chop is pink and tender, served with a pleasantly peppery sauce, roasted potatoes, and asparagus. It's much better than the namesake entree, pollo Da Vinci, chicken stuffed with fontina and prosciutto. The dish shines, in a bad way: Everything is covered in a layer of grease. The bird itself is juicy and nicely cooked, but the sage leaves sandwiched in with the filling are bitter. The accompanying mushroom risotto falls on the opposite end of the spectrum from the pappardelle. It's as if they put all the funghi flavor in the noodles and none in the rice.
Tiramisu, creamy and less alcohol-laden than many versions, is accompanied by two strangely crunchy ladyfingers. For a boozier end to the meal, there's the Last Supper, a concoction of Frangelico, Kahlua, and Baileys that could be called the Last Dessert. Many of the cocktails here have Da Vinci-themed titles. The artist, engineer, musician, and scientist is an interesting figure to name a restaurant for. This, essentially, was a man who could do everything but cook. Fortunately, Peppino's got that part under control.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.