Like it or not, one of the most dependable truisms about the city of Pittsburgh is that it's really a small town. If you're looking for that kind of freeing anonymity that people enjoy in big cities like New York, well, you can keep on looking. Because here, you hop on the bus, and there's your colleague. Go to the ballgame or a reading, and -- hi, neighbor! And at your corner bar, they know not just your name, but also your favorite draft.
For the restaurant version of this small-town experience, dine at Davio. The night we went to this tiny Italian restaurant on Beechview's main drag, our waitress was amazed to have three tables -- in one night! -- that had not been there before. With not much more than a dozen four-tops, you need a reservation. With a cozy interior ornamented with family photos, the grandchildren's lovingly preserved baby shoes and eclectic oil paintings, you may also want an introduction.
Yet, as strangers, we were warmly welcomed. The service was friendly, helpful when needed and unobtrusive when not. The menu is a large card with appetizers and salads on one side and pasta and meat entrees on the other. Twin specialties of the house are crab and veal, with each offered in a variety of dishes, together and separately. The menu manages to be simultaneously classic -- no wacky ingredients, no pretentious preparations -- and unique. Of a couple dozen entrees, only a familiar few were lifted from the Standard Italian Restaurant Repertoire; the rest were the kind of dishes you might expect to discover on a luxurious Italian vacation.
While we perused the choices, our waitress delivered a basket of hot, soft, crusty bread along with two tasty dressings: olive oil infused with garlic and herbs, and a spread of crushed white beans and escarole. Rather than being redundant, this only primed Angelique's palate for her appetizer of escarole and beans, one of her very favorite Italian dishes. Davio created a memorable version with greens braised until they were just barely wilted and tossed with tender white beans boldly flavored with salt, pepper and garlic.
Jason's Portobello stuffed with crabmeat was like a huge mushroom sandwich. Two firm, flavorful grilled caps hugged a sort of crab salad, with diced bell peppers and celery lending a fresh crunch to the sweet shellfish.
Davio's signature dish, a double-cut veal chop, is always available, even though it's not on the printed menu. Jason was sorely tempted, but the promise of crab and melted cheese drew him instead to the fazzoletto alla Tosca, veal cutlets wrapped around fontina and crab, and topped with an asparagus cream sauce. The whole was then broiled, resulting in a crunchy crust surrounding tender meat while the crab seemed even more decadently rich in its medium of molten cheese. Inch-long spears of asparagus provided a vegetal contrast of texture and flavor, and the veal itself exemplified the mild but distinctive character that makes it an irreplaceable base for such a riot of culinary creativity.
Crab featured once more in Angelique's entrée, this time paired with poached salmon and accented by sautéed spinach and toasted pignoli. The salmon was simply prepared in butter, salt and pepper, which formed a lovely light brown crust on the moist, flaky fish. Over this fell a generous cascade of jumbo lump crab and toasted pine nuts. Disappointingly, the spinach was so scant, it could have been mistaken for an herb, not a featured ingredient. Still, we called the dish a success, with the beautifully toasted pignoli adding warmth and depth to the tender, sweet seafood.
Like the rest of our meals, our dessert was a peerless preparation. Russian sable flourless chocolate cake had a posh name and a consistency to match, smooth like a mousse but more creamy and dense. Its chocolaty richness was punctuated by a distinctive tang that we conjectured might have come from sour cream. Would it have been so inappropriate to have licked our plates?
Like Pittsburgh itself, Davio is a small place full of friendly faces. With superb Italian food, an intimate setting, and excellent service, this little restaurant in Beechview has more than earned its devoted clientele.
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars