Chicago: Davanti Enoteca Raises the Rustic Pizza Bar in Little Italy
1359 West Taylor Street, Chicago, IL 60607 (map); 312-226-5550; davantichicago.com
Pizza Style: Thin Crust
Oven: Gas powered stone dome oven
The Skinny: Great toppings and pretty good crust make for some really good pizzas, but the rest of the menu is even better
Price: Pizzas range from $10 to $14
Twenty years ago (this very week), Scott Harris was a 30-year-old Chicago-bred chef just opening Mia Francesa in Lakeview with the help of two partners and some money they scraped together (Harris's share largely coming from what was left of his grandmother's life savings). The place was an instant success, with lines pouring out the door on a nightly basis. Fast forward to today and Mia Francesca is a small empire 24 restaurants strong that puts out solid, if unspectacular, "rustic" Italian food at very reasonable prices. The restaurants are plenty popular and there are massive expansion plans underway, but Harris is focusing his personal time on other projects.
In 2009, Harris embraced a different trend. I like to call it the open-a-shit-ton-of-niche-restaurants-and-if-people-don't-come-shut-them-down-and-open-something-else trend. In less than two years, Harris opened Dough Boys (pizza joint reviewed here), Salatino's (old school Italian), Fat Rosie's (Mexican), Nella Pizzeria Napoletana (since closed, reviewed here), Disotto Enoteca (wine bar and small plates), and two more restaurants that have since closed. He also joined forces with Jimmy Bannos to open charcuterie and small place mecca, The Purple Pig (reviewed here and here). And oh yeah, he's currently got three doughnut shops in the works. But the place that's most in line with his original vision, only a hell of a lot better, is Davanti Enoteca, a mostly small plates Italian restaurant that has lines every bit as long as the original Mia Francesca did 20 years ago.
The Pizza della Terra embodies earthiness. The white pie comes topped with a mess of "foraged" mushrooms along with braised leeks, taleggio cheese, and truffle oil. Everything about this pizza worked really well together. I'm generally not a fan of truffle oil because it tends to dominate, but Executive Chef Jonathan Beatty, a Purple Pig alum, understands the concept of restraint.
The quality and strength of the other toppings also helped out in keeping the truffle oil in check. I have no idea where these mushrooms are foraged from, but they were extremely flavorful. The braised leeks, which were virtually melted, added a touch of sweetness to the toppings. And the tangy tallegio, an under-utilized pizza cheese, stood up to the very flavorful toppings that would have rendered mozzarella useless.
The spicy salami pizza came with fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, kale, garlic, and chili oil in addition to the excellent charcuterie—a combination that worked really well. The heat in the salami and the chili oil definitely gave this pizza a lip-tingling kick, but nothing too strong. The sauce, made from Carmelina San Marzano tomatoes, brightened up the pizza nicely. All together, it was a successful if fairly basic combination.
The toppings on both pizzas were truly delicious. The crust, while good, was not quite up to par. A bit more crunchy than chewy, it landed on the bland side. Part of that was surely because, in both pizzas I tried, it was topped with some fairly strong flavors. But even when I isolated the crust, I thought there was definitely room for more salt and a more developed yeast flavor.
Even with the less than stellar crust, I was a big fan of everything about Davanti Enoteca. From the interior design of the place (almost all of that wood is refurbished pieces of a 180-year-old barn) to the extremely attentive service, to the variety of rustic food, everything worked well. From a pizza perspective, the only real problem is that everything else I sampled from the menu was actually better. Not a bad problem to have at all.
About the author: Daniel Zemans is so devoted to Chicago that he covers pizza for Slice and burgers for A Hamburger Today. When he's not focusing on expanding his waistline, he works as a lawyer on behalf of employees and tenants.