Da Vinci Ristorante

After a promising first visit, the South Philly BYOB took a disappointing turn, lowlighted by a memorable gaffe.

Posted: October 19, 2008

I didn't notice the music when dinner was going well. And it was a pleasant first meal, after all, that had brought us back for an encore at Da Vinci Ristorante.

I was eager to check out the new Italian BYOB that had landed in the space once occupied by the good flavors of Tre Scalini, which last year had moved a few blocks south. And as I sat that first night in the window of Da Vinci's dining room across the piazza from East Passyunk Avenue's singing fountain, my early impressions were bright.

The space had been given a warm renovation, with walls the color of tomato ragu and mustard, an antique chandelier, framed prints from Leonardo, Da Vinci's namesake, and exposed wood ceilings that gave it a rustic look. The seasoned South Philly BYO crowd finishing its dinner beside us, meanwhile, seemed to bask in the glow of a favorite new haunt, eagerly toasting the chef at meal's end with complimentary shots of his homemade cioccolatello.

That chef, co-owner Francesco Parmisciano, is aiming for a menu here more reminiscent of the authentic flavors of his native southern Italy than the high-volume Caesar salad-and-chicken- pasta fare from his long tenure at Lamberti's now-closed Pasta Blitz. And I found the most interesting of those flavors in particular on the list of specials. Delicate half-moon ravioli were stuffed with tender shreds of osso buco meat, spinach and ricotta. A trio of bruschetta toasts came topped with, among other things, an unusual mince of marinated mackerel.

There was a crispy cutlet of tender veal topped with sweet and tangy agrodolce sauce studded with raisins and pine nuts. A whole orata cooked beneath a salt crust (reminiscent of La Veranda, where Parmisciano also once worked), was plump and moist and sea-sweet, even if the server was too careless filleting it tableside, letting much of the salty crust remain.

It wasn't a perfect meal by a long shot (both the stuffed chicken and pork medallions in berry sauce were a tad overcooked). But I took my complimentary glass of the creamy chocolate liqueur, swallowed a fluffy forkful of homemade tiramisu, and raised the shot high. Da Vinci, it seemed, represented a happy new chapter for an address with a long tradition of good Italian cooking.

But something unexpected happened upon our return. On a night when the dining room was quiet, as many new restaurants often are at midweek, Da Vinci lost its verve and focus. It slipped closer to mediocrity in the kitchen than I'd expected, and turned up the excruciatingly retro elevator music. Or perhaps I noticed the music more only as it became the soundtrack for an unforgettable restaurant gaffe: The Tale of the Rinsed Chop.

It all began with a small but serious request from my guest, who is violently allergic to sugar. She explained her condition to the server and simply asked that her veal chop come with its fig sauce on the side.

Easy enough, right? But as our meal stepped off to an uncertain start, with "Volare" and "That's Amore" swooning over the speakers, I got an uneasy feeling things would not end well by the main course.

The appetizers were already shaky. I liked the idea of a home-style cauliflower "tortino" cake laced with fresh sardines, but it was buried under so much tomato sauce, the taste of cauliflower was nonexistent. The steamed mussels came scattered with weird "crab meatballs" that were like fried marbles of fishy bread. The stewed calamari in umido were a genuine highlight, the tender tubes mingling with peas in a subtle tomato gravy. But the fussy insalata Gioconda - melon balls, cherry tomatoes and arugula - was skimpy on the crab meat that might have made it worth $12.

The primi pasta course was also a mixed bag. The gnocchi in emerald pesto were straightforward and decently light. A spaghetti special topped with ground duck ragu was hearty and flavorful. The seafood risotto, though, was dry, not that hot, and soullessly bland. The cavatelli topped with chicken and broccoli rabe was pedestrian.

Then, as we waited an exceedingly long time for the next course, I watched hungrily as the chef hung out with a table across the room for yet another extended cioccolatino-toasting session. Who was in the kitchen cooking our food, I wondered? (The answer: no one). So I was not entirely surprised at what then happened. After a 45- minute wait for entrees, that veal chop finally arrived - glistening with a sweet brown shine of fig gravy.

Our waitress was appropriately apologetic, whisking the chop away to the kitchen. But then that same chop suspiciously reappeared two minutes later naked on a plate: "Magical," she said, passing her hand Vanna White-like over the meat. "Very much wiped off."

She seemed genuinely miffed at our concern.

The notion that my guest might soon be pitching a purple-faced fit of feverish shakes in Da Vinci's dining room just didn't seem to register. And Parmisciano was just as clueless as he emerged to explain how he had washed the chop under water before reheating it on the grill: "Of course, if you prefer something else..."

But it was too late to salvage these entrees. The almond- and ham-stuffed chicken Mona Lisa had been overcooked. The sauteed rockfish was topped with stringy, olive-colored spears that had once been asparagus. My grilled sausage with white beans was satisfying in a basic way. But Parmisciano's signature meatballs, "Polpette Leonardo," were a particular letdown, the ground chicken, veal and mortadella stuffing dry beneath an oddly breaded and pan-fried crust.

I took a tiny nibble of that veal chop, and sadly, it was a perfectly tender, thick slice of meat (not to mention squeaky clean!) But my guest, understandably cautious, wasn't going near it.

Our waitress, meanwhile, conveniently "forgot" to remove it from our bill until she saw us shaking our heads at the $32 line item. It was removed without a fuss. And the shots of cioccolatello were promptly set before us. But there wasn't much to toast at the end of this meal.

Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Parc on Rittenhouse Square. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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