A chain that makes the most out of meat

In a town that counts pasta and red gravy among its primary food groups, it might seem presumptuous that an out-of-town Italian chain would shoot for the heart of Center City.

But that is what Davio's has done. The upscale Italian steakhouse, a Boston-based mini-chain (there are three others in the Northeast), has renovated the sprawling second floor of the historic Provident National Bank building at 17th and Chestnut, staking a corner of what some hope will blossom into a thriving annex of Walnut Street's restaurant row.

The chain has hired an entirely local crew, including Fountain Room veteran Ettore Ceraso as manager and former Morton's chef Shawn Sollberger to run the kitchen. The staff has even gone out of its way to seat PNC's nostalgic private bankers next to windows where their cubicles used to be.

But does Philly need another expensive Italian restaurant? Perhaps not. The Italian specialties here were very good, but hardly spectacular when compared with Vetri, Monte Carlo Living Room, La Famiglia, or many of the best outposts in South Philadelphia.

But whether Center City needs a good steakhouse is another question. This Davio's, unlike its Boston and Providence, R.I., counterparts, has decided to place quality steak and chops at the center of its menu. And with an experienced steak jockey such as Sollberger riding behind the grill, why not?

There is a horde of steak chains poised to enter the city in the forthcoming months, so the answer to my second question might be different come 2001. But of the existing upscale steakhouses that cluster around Center City, few have delivered delicious meat specialties with the consistency I experienced at Davio's.

A thick cut of dry-aged New York strip that came shaped like the state of New Jersey (and just about as big) was nearly as good as it gets. Its crunchy caramelized edges gave way to rosy moist meat inside, enlivened by a cool dollop of whipped cream braced with grated horseradish. The grilled rib eye was almost as good, splashed in a dark sauce that was toasty with garlic. And the grilled veal chop was simple perfection. Browned, yet superbly juicy inside, the butter-soft meat needed little embellishment. Even so, a silky bearnaise on the side added an old-fashioned decadence that I won't regret indulging.

The giant mallet of meat that was the braised "Volcano" lamb shank looked like a prop from the movie Quest for Fire. It was glazed with the mahoganied flavor of caramelized gravy and just about falling off the bone. A mound of earthy red lentils and fried spinach nestled below it, offering a clever alternative starch to boring mashed potatoes - a thoughtful touch that Davio's brought to other dishes. A mixed mash of root vegetables anchored the excellent scallops (one of a handful of seafood options) in creamed parsley sauce, so big and juicy they might as well have been mini-steaks. And a puree of white sweet potatoes worked as a nice echo to the pear and fig chutney that tumbled over the fan of tender duck breast.

The rack of lamb was our only real entree disappointment, chewier than tough steak and placed over a burnt risotto cake that felt stale to the bite. The kitchen won't be able to make too many mistakes like that, at $26.95.

Davio's should be commended for renovating the historic bank space (and the 13th-floor banquet room), but why such a stark decor? The hardwood floors are so bare, they beg for the warmth of few rugs. The dark scrim curtains that roll down the arching paned windows seem to shut the city out rather than enhance its attractive view. And the intricate carved wood moldings that ring the high-ceilinged room are practically invisible under the monotonous khaki paint - it gives this otherwise handsome room the generic feel of a Pottery Barn.

Something as simple as a few pieces of artwork could bring enough color to liven up the place. But it is typical of the kind of missing tweaks that are still holding the four-month-old restaurant from establishing its full potential.

The service staff, for example, has taken the right cues from its Four Seasons-trained managers, treating diners with outgoing kindness and being well-prepared to discuss the menu and wine list. Our meals, though, had none of that Fountain Room precision. On a busy night, entrees arrived before the appetizers had even been cleared. The servers were not always there when we needed them, and, strangely, they even managed to fill my water glass and coffee cup while ignoring those of my guests. On a quieter midweek meal, hovering was the issue. We could hardly take a sip of water without them leaping forward for a refill.

While the meat entrees were the kitchen's forte, many of the Italian specialties were also quite ably prepared, including several pastas that we ordered in appetizer portions.

A lunchtime fettuccine came tangled with peas and salty frizzles of nice prosciutto. Spaghetti bolognese was superb, made to the recipe of Davio owner Steve DiFillippo's mother, and a perfect balance of tender ground veal, beef and pork tossed in slowly steeped tomato sauce with fresh basil.

The gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce was a particularly leaden dish - too heavy for an appetizer, let alone an entree. But fusilli in anchovy butter, another potentially overwhelming dish, succeeded on verve, tasting like a hot pasta Caesar salad cleverly topped with the dusty crunch of toasted bread crumbs. Even a free-form lasagna strapazzata that came looking like a big bowl of mess (its name, after all, means "bungled") had a delicious medley of flavors. Wine-infused red sauce mingled with stock and grilled chicken between wide ribbons of egg noodles, fontina cheese, and great caps of roasted wild mushrooms.

Earthy whole mushrooms added a rustic touch to another one of my favorites, the tasty grilled link of wild boar sausage with beans glazed in a dark and herby mushroom stock.

Many of the menu's other appetizers, however, were disappointing - soggy calamari that oozed excess oil on the plate; a boring and mushy crabcake; a Caesar salad that arrived at the table limp with dressing; tuna tartare showing up with an unexpected Asian preparation that was jarring in this context.

In some cases, the goofs reflected a risky lack of attention. One guest nearly broke his teeth on some shattered shells hiding in the otherwise tasty broth of littleneck clams. A grilled bruschetta appetizer had all the right piquant flavors and quality ingredients. But the presentation was so overwrought - jumbo shrimp, salty olives and spinach climbing over a vertical hollowed-out baguette - it was simply difficult to eat.

Davio's simple but well-prepared desserts, however, would leave us with a fond finish. The hot chocolate souffle was more of a flourless cake, but dense and delicious all the same, ample enough for two. The banana bread pudding also was a comfort dessert success: The soft hunk of pudding gave off hot steam when broken with a fork, melting the softball-size scoop of ice cream into its heart.

My favorite was the tiramisu, also a DiFillippo recipe, which layered cream and espresso-soaked rounds of ladyfingers in a cylinder that rose from the plate, with the aid of cookie fins, like a missile.

OK, OK. Do we really need another Italian restaurant - and an out-of-towner to boot - serving us tiramisu? If it tastes like this, I'll take as many as we can find.