There’s Probably Something Specifically Northern Italian at Davio’s, But You Should Focus on the Steaks, Gnocchi and Service

Steak and frites. Photo by Mercedes Del Real

Let’s just say you’re actually looking for a restaurant that serves the cuisine of Northern Italy. You’d be expecting dishes featuring rich cream sauces rather than the bright tomato ones popular in the South. You’d also be keen to how Northern Italian cooks use butter more than olive oil and favor polenta, risotto and gnocchi over pasta. But when you go to Davio’s—which bills itself as a “Northern Italian Steakhouse”—you will struggle to understand where the spring roll appetizer fits in.

Yes, that’s right: Spring rolls—not unlike the Chinese kind—are the restaurant’s most popular appetizer. In fact, they’re Davio’s trademark foodstuffs, with at least four varieties sporting a registered trademark symbol next to their names on the menu. Further research reveals that these spring rolls are also sold in the frozen foods aisle of Costco, Gelson’s and some 7-Elevens.

Spring roll sampler at Davio’s. Photo by Mercedes Del Real

Even if it reminds you of a Ratatouille plot point, you should order them. The restaurant offers an easy way to decide, with a sampler featuring all five kinds for $19. Each roll is halved and standing upright in a puddle of sauce. The Philly Cheese Steak Spring Roll® sits in ketchup and mayo. The Buffalo Chicken Spring Roll® gets a blue cheese dressing. The Chicken Parm Spring Roll® nearly drowns in a peppy marinara. And although you can’t tell the citrus aioli on the Shrimp Cotija Spring Roll® apart from the lemon aioli of the spinach and feta, you find the rolls taste of their filling. The spinach and feta reminds you of a spanakopita. You’ll end up liking them all, because, let’s face it: anything bundled in egg-roll skin and deep-fried is never not good.

At this point, you’ll decide it’s best to not think too hard about what’s Northern Italian or otherwise here. Instead, enjoy Davio’s for what it is: a chain born in Boston that now has 10 locations, including this one in a stand-alone building nestled under a high-rise office complex.

This first West Coast Davio’s is a white-table-cloth kind of establishment, a corporate-run restaurant for corporate types. And aside from the red glow of heat lamps in the open kitchen, the restaurant is all beige and muted colors.

A basket of hot-from-the-oven popovers starts the meal, and they’re better than the Yorkshire pudding served one block over at Gulliver’s. These overgrown pastry puffs have crisp exteriors like a baguette and cavernous, eggy, moist interiors like a Dutch Baby. They’re the best popovers in Orange County, and here, they’re free and infinitely refillable.

American Kobe meatballs. Photo by Mercedes Del Real

You could conceivably use them to scoop up the appetizer of American Kobe meatballs since the meat is that soft. The meatballs come two to a serving and are lavished with a bright tomato sauce that zings the back of your mouth as the meat melts in the front. It’s the softness of these meatballs that makes you realize it’s the texture of the dishes, not their regionality, that’s key to everything you eat here.

For instance, the gnocchi served with a creamy organic-mushroom-and-white-truffle-oil-scented sauce is classically northern, but it’s their cloud-like tenderness that sends your eyes to the back of your head. The potato pillows are so yielding you could mistake them for marshmallows.

There are steaks here, of course, served in a steakhouse manner at steakhouse prices ranging from an 8-ounce flat-iron for $31 to a 30-ounce Porterhouse for $80. Somewhere in between, there’s even a 3-ounce Japanese A5 Wagyu for $65, which works out to $346 per pound when you do the math. Each steak is served à la carte, which means you’ll need to order the sides separately.

Gnocchi. Photo by Mercedes Del Real

But then you notice the flat-iron can also come fully plated with broccoli rabe and Parmigiano fries for $35, saving you at least $20. And the steak is everything you expect from a steakhouse: crusted to a flavorful char, cooked flawlessly, every chew of the sanguine flesh absent of the gristle and impurities of a lesser cut of meat. Its richness is offset by the bracing bitterness of the greens, and with the fries, it’s practically French steak frites.

At the end of the meal, the waitress will wheel over the dessert cart, on which you’ll see a wiggly panna cotta, chocolate cake and crème brûlée. After you finish your dessert, she might tell you she’ll get a fresh-baked batch of popovers for you to take home instead of the cold ones left in your basket. It’s then you’ll know that when you come back to Davio’s, it won’t be because of its purported Northern Italian regionality, but rather for its “northern” hospitality . . . and yes, those popovers!

Davio’s, 18420 Von Karman Ave., Ste. 100, Irvine, (949) 477-4810; davios.com. Open for lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; for brunch, Sun., 11 a.m.- 3 p.m.; and for dinner, Sun.-Tues., 5-10 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Appetizers, $15- $19; entrées, $14-$80. Full bar.

Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.

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