Location: 2516 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-431-1119
Hours: Breakfast and lunch Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m..-3 p.m.; dinner Tue.-Sat. 4-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and salads $3-7; entrees $13-20; prix fixe $25
Atmosphere: Warm and intimate
There's an old saying in the restaurant business: There's a fine line between short-order cook and restaurant chef.
Actually, nobody says it, because it's not really true. While the best short-order cooks dish up some pretty fine grub, the skill set of formally trained chefs is on an entirely different order. One approach is gustatory; the other, culinary.
But a recent visit to Caffe Davio on the South Side made us reconsider the distinction.
By day, this tiny storefront takes on the guise of a diner, serving omelets, pancakes and other classic American griddle-based fare. But come evening, it is transformed into one of the city's most authentic and delightful Italian restaurants. Decorated with an eclectic collection of paintings (which are, like Caffe Davio itself, both romantic and modern), the intimate dining room is dimly lit but with occasional flashes from flaming pans in the open kitchen, that short-order staple turned fine-dining fashion.
We were instantly charmed, and our server's suggestion of a special appetizer -- calamari and shrimp tossed with spinach -- made for an agreeable start as we pondered the menu. One side prix fixe, the other a la carte, it focused on the authentic flavors of Sicily, such as pasta Norma and veal alla Palermitana. But it also occasionally invokes the short-order tradition, as with the hash of potatoes, peppers and onions that serve as a bed for steaks.
The calamari starter was surprisingly light. In place of the heavy notes of garlic and olive oil that more often characterize this kind of sauté, the fresh flavors of the seafood predominated, with squid that was the most tender and most succulent we've ever had. The big, meaty shrimp were satisfactory but could have withstood bolder saucing.
As a prelude to our entrees, we also received a simple antipasto plate of home-baked bread served with fat strips of roasted red pepper, a mix of briny marinated olives and cecinini, a garlicky chick-pea paste that is Sicily's answer to hummus. We couldn't get enough of the extraordinary bread. Its thick, dark crust, more crispy than chewy, played nicely with the airy, but not insubstantial, crumb within.
A Mediterranean salad of iceberg lettuce was almost as irresistible as the bread. The lettuce was crunchy, juicy, and dressed up with fresh lemon, mint and unfiltered Sicilian olive oil, whose flavors evoked lighter, brighter seasons.
Jason is always on a quest for good linguine with white clam sauce, and the exquisite calamari in our appetizer raised his hopes. A huge platter, heavily studded with chopped clams, met his expectations. The pasta was al dente; the sauce, if perhaps a touch oily, was bright and flavorful, and the clams were perfectly tender. There was no sign of fresh littlenecks, but we've been disappointed by enough well-presented clam dishes not to put much stock in the presence of shells.
Another pasta dish, linguini al filo fumo -- "nippy" tomato sauce with bacon, onions and fresh mozzarella -- was deceptively simple. The preparations and proportions of the ingredients nimbly balanced sweet, tart, smoky and salty flavors.
The hits just kept on coming. Char-grilled sirloin strip steak, on the aforementioned bed of grilled potatoes, peppers and onions, was worthy of a fine steakhouse. It featured outstanding sear mingled with savory seasoning on the outside and rosy, robust beefiness on the inside. The hearty taste of the steak extended to the accompanying hash as well, creating a unity as well as diversity of flavors on the plate.
After all this, we hardly had room for dessert, but leaving without a proper ending to such a meal was unthinkable. Cheesecake was light as a cloud and touched with fragrant notes of citrus which enhanced the cake's rich creaminess. We also received a small plate of homemade biscotti dusted with powdered sugar, lemon zest and anise. We are not normally biscotti lovers, but if ever there were biscotti to convert us, these would be the ones.
We have yet to try Caffe Davio by day, but by night, it is a jewel box of a restaurant, full of warmth, welcome and the pure pleasure of beautifully prepared Sicilian cuisine.