Grilled swordfish at Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse


Photo: JOEL VEAK

Even in tough economic times, there are moments when you can't pinch pennies on a celebratory meal. Commemorating a big round number of a birthday or wedding anniversary? Planning to propose or close a business deal? That's not the best time to choose the dumpy joint with amazing food or proudly participate in the Great Coupon Revival. No, you need to splurge a little while smartly minimizing the risk behind your big outlay. That calls for a restaurant that can reliably impress with luxe ambiance and strong service, make a good cocktail and stock a decent cellar, and show enough menu breadth to please both the self-styled foodie and the timid surf-and-turfer.

Fancy French places? They can seem fussy and pretentious. Luxury steakhouses? A trifle unimaginative. Swank sashimi joints? Too many alien ingredients for some. A surer bet is Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse (75 Arlington Street, Boston, 617.357.4810), a Back Bay veteran that combines the virtues of a slightly creative Northern Italian menu with the middlebrow glories of a platinum-card steakhouse. Anchored by a frenetic open kitchen, the dining room is lively but not deafening; well-spaced tables further abet intimate conversation. Modern décor with soaring ceilings and giant columns is handsome but not too frou-frou. Service has the polish but not the hauteur of some top-tier places. Most important, the menu is a crowd-pleaser.

Bread with terrific olives, pimiento goat cheese, and chunky caponata is an auspicious start. Appetizers lean toward luxury, like an abundantly meaty, crisp Jonah crab cake ($15) flanked by celery, leek, and black-olive relish, or seared foie gras ($19) with pear mostarda. A wet-aged Brandt Beef prime sirloin ($43) ranks among the top steaks in town, though contorni are needed to round out the plate - perhaps green beans ($7) made memorable with fried garlic and crisp guanciale, or a novel sweet-potato gratin ($7). From the Italian side, terrific house-made pastas include lobster ravioli ($29) in tomato-lobster brodo with peas and pea tendrils. And while it won't win prizes for innovation, the grilled swordfish ($33), a pristine fillet adorned only with salt, pepper, and lemon, is elegant and perfect in its simplicity. In short, Davio's offers fine if unchallenging cuisine, appealingly wrapped in pampering service and attractive ambiance. In baseball terms, it delivers a solid double every time, rather than swinging for the fences and occasionally flying out on the warning track. When the stakes (and price tag) for dinner are high, that level of consistent performance and quality might just be exactly what you need.