Davanti Enoteca (Chicago): Hot new chef Jonathan Beatty redefines Italian cuisine in Chi-Town’s Little Italy

Jonathan Beatty is drawing much attention and praise for his pan-Italian cooking that introduces diners to some of the more obscure foods and flavors of the boot country. Photo courtesy of Davanti Enoteca

If you go to Little Italy’s Davanti Enoteca looking for a giant plate of spaghetti and meatballs, you can fuggedaboutit.

Yes, this corner restaurant-wine bar is located on Taylor Street, where chicken vesuvio, veal parm and baked ziti are the holy trinity of menu items.  But you won’t find these dishes — or anything like them — among chef Jonathan Beatty’s fruitful pan-Italian repertoire.

Beatty says he cooks for himself, incorporating the dishes he enjoys eating on Davanti's menu. Photo by Alex Janowski

“The way I cook, a lot of people say it’s not Italian,” says the 27-year-old rising star chef.  “I get a lot of people telling me it’s not Italian because it’s not ‘red sauce Italian.’ ”

But judging from the crowds that are packing into this Italian farmhouse-style storefront — the latest concept from molto restaurateur Scott Harris (the Mia Francesca chain, The Purple Pig) — there are a lot of people out there more than willing to skip the sauce.

Developed by Harris, Beatty (Harris’ Purple Pig protégé) and chef Luigi Negroni, Davanti’s menu offers twists and turns on a variety of flavors and foods from around the boot country.  And there are dishes that Beatty developed an affection for during his travels (he lived in Italy for a year) and previous culinary stints (including time spent in famed New York restaurants Esca, Daniel and Le Bernardin.)

Pizza con salsiccia e rapini ($11) — with its super-spicy chili oil base, mild Italian sausage, crisp broccolini and fresh tomatoes and mozzarella — is there because “it’s the only thing I ate during my day off when I lived in New York City,” Beatty says.  And he also “loves” the Calabrian chilies (so do I) that go into the infused oil.

“The things I love to eat are the things that I put in my food,” Beatty says.  “I really should cook for other people.  But I cook for myself.”

Davanti's menu features a plethora of options including vasi, which are mini Mason jars filled with spreadable goodies. Photo courtesy of Davanti Enoteca

And that was perfectly okay with my friend Angie and me, because we found our tastes highly simpatico with Beatty’s.  But where to start?  We skipped over a fine sounding, but basic, list of Italian cheeses and cured meats.  And we bypassed vasi — baby Mason jars filled with goodies such as ricotta and honeycomb ($6) and olives mediterranea ($4).  Instead, we kicked things off with one of Davanti’s many antipasti.

Angie opted for one of Beatty’s personal favorites, classic white anchovies ($5) paired with celery, pecorino Sardo and briny leccino olives.  Beatty describes the dish as “very light and refreshing,” and Angie agreed.  I have to fess that unlike Angie and chef Beatty, I’m anti-anchovy.  Angie coached me to eat the fishy fish simultaneously with — for me — the other more palatable ingredients, and the fishiness was indeed tempered by the dish’s overall cleansing flavors.

Beatty avoids "overcomplicated" flavors, preferring to serve well-executed, simple dishes. Photo courtesy of Davanti Enoteca

The anchovies now in my past, we roamed into the insalate section of the menu.  Several things appealed:  roasted cherry tomato, burrata cheese and basil pesto ($11); escarole, gala apple,Pecorino Dolce, celery and hazelnut ($6).  But I was intrigued by the roasted corn salad ($8) and Angie owed me one.  Warm and toasty, the lightly-dressed salad was a wonderful blend of flavors and textures.  Here, Beatty tosses together and lightly dresses crunchy, slightly sugary fresh-roasted corn, toasted walnuts, aged goat cheese, pleasantly sharp arugula and mushrooms.

There was no discussion over our next course — focaccia di Recco ($15), which has quickly become one of Davanti’s most buzzed-about dishes.  Davanti’s signature flatbread is based on an age-old recipe from the town of Recco in Liguria, according to Beatty.  Served fresh from the oven on a large wooden board, the focaccia appears to be made of buttery-crisp crusts that envelop an obscenely rich and slightly salty cow’s milk cheese.

Beatty and chef Luigi Negroni developed their own, crispier take on traditional Neapolitan pizza crust. Photo courtesy of Davanti Enoteca

From there, we ordered the aforementioned sausage and rapini pizza and experimented with risotto carbonara ($11) from the paste section.  Angie and I had a difficult time stopping ourselves from inhaling Beatty’s creamy blend of al dente Arborio rice, pancetta, sweet peas (of which I craved more), fresh nutty parmigiano and wonderfully gooey farm egg yolk.

Warning: Pace yourself or you may be stuffed by the time you get to Beatty's entrées. Photo courtesy of Davanti Enoteca

This proved a detriment, as we were too full to sample one of Beatty’s still enticing entrées if we planned to eat dessert.  And we planned to eat dessert.  (Although I’ve heard Davanti described as “small plate” dining, I’m living proof that this is a misnomer. The focaccia alone could feed a family.)  The chef, who changes his menu frequently lest he grow bored, tells me current standouts include polpo con rafano ($14) — seared octopus with warm fingerling potato salad, Marcona almonds, finocchiona salami and fresh horseradish aioli and bistecca con funghi e ravanello ($17) — grilled hanger steak with saba-marinated oyster mushrooms, roasted radish and salsa verde.

So what of dessert?  If it’s still on the menu, I recommend budino di farro ($5), Beatty’s vanilla-spiked take on rice pudding, which he serves with sweet red wine-soaked dates and refreshing organic yogurt.  Another “must order” is melt-in-your-mouth salted caramel panna cotta ($6) with saba syrup, honey-roasted peanuts, fruity strawberry balsamic and whipped cream.

Says Beatty: “Salted caramel is my absolute favorite flavor combination on the planet.”

And that’s a good thing for us.

Davanti Enoteca
1359 West Taylor Street
Chicago, Illinois  60607

Davanti Enoteca on Urbanspoon

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