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Pizza is a rough outfit here in the Northeast, otherwise known as the Shangri-La of Pizzadom. With so many pizzerias between Boston and Brooklyn, with a fantastic stop in New Haven in between, we Constitution Staters tend to have educated pizza palates, which makes us more than a little discerning when it comes to picking up a good pie.
Enter Pizzeria Da Vinci, a chain of restaurants in the most curious collection of Connecticut towns; places like Hebron, Cobalt, Rockfall, Moodus, Deep River and Killingworth. It's as though Da Vinci's founders are on mini-missions to Connecticut's smaller burgs to ensure everyone has access to quality pizza. Now expanding past the one-horse towns, the chain's newest shops have started hitting more populous towns, such as Avon, Old Lyme and Cromwell.
I sampled the goods at Da Vinci's Deep River location, nestled right on Main St., downtown. Here's the good news: there's very, very good pizza to be had this side of the Q Bridge; the bad news is you'll have a hard time picking another menu item once you taste the baked potato pie on Da Vinci's specialty pizza menu.
Now, I've had the legendary mashed potato pie at BAR in New Haven, and that's amazing stuff, but Da Vinci's take on a similar recipe is outstanding and has gotten raves from anyone I know who's tried it. It's a white pie topped with generous slices of red potatoes, a ton of crumbled bacon, and perfectly metered dollops of sour cream. I don't even tend to use sour cream, but its tang is employed beautifully on this pizza. It's topped off with garlic and a sprinkling of spices that keeps the whole package from getting too, well, baked potato-y. The crispy thin crust helps, of course.
A note on crust: Da Vinci's pizza makers do a fine job at crafting crisp, moderately moist thin-crust pizzas, but if you're looking for a fired-to-perfection Pepe's type of crust, you might have to drive a little farther to get it. Having grown up on Greek pizza, I'm a pretty easy sell on most thin crusts, and Da Vinci's is certainly enjoyable to me.
I've got a tie for my second-place go-to pizzas after the baked potato: between the BBQ chicken, another specialty pizza, and the cheese pizza topped with eggplant, you've got two great meals. The eggplant on the pizza is prepped so well, I intend to go back and try Da Vinci's eggplant parmesan grinder. It's lightly fried, sliced thin (overly chunky eggplant on pizza is a deal-breaker for me), and coated in especially flavorful crumbs.
Here's what particularly great about the BBQ chicken: instead of the breaded cubed cutlet doused with barbecue sauce you encounter on most BBQ chicken pizzas, Da Vinci uses shredded chicken breast that's been marinated in a lovely, smoky sauce. Somehow the tomato sauce complements the marinated chicken and the whole package seems all the more substantial for it.
I made sure to sample one fairly basic pizza too, and while you can get a plain cheese pizza (numerous toppings available) at Da Vinci, the gourmet version, the Tomato Basil pizza on the specialty menu, is a nice change. Instead of sauce you've got fresh plum tomatoes on top of a layer of mozzarella cheese, topped with a whole lot of chopped garlic and basil. The tomatoes were wonderfully sweet and flavorful and the garlic not terribly overpowering. This pizza paired very well with Da Vinci's Leonardo salad, one of many on the menu. The Leonardo mixes mesclun greens with grapes, Granny Smith apples, gorgonzola cheese, cranberries and walnuts (available without walnuts; I'm allergic and made the request for no walnuts and Da Vinci thankfully complied). What reads like a riot of strong flavors comes together masterfully in this salad. With a few dabs of the accompanying raspberry vinaigrette dressing, you've got a whole new type of savory experience to enjoy, which balances out the fresh garlic power of the Tomato Basil pie nicely.
And where some restaurants conjure the most boring salads under the banner of "tossed" or "house" salad, the Da Vinci tossed salad is a fantastic mix of lettuce greens, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and a generous dash of Asiago cheese. It's a generous portion of salad (two of us didn't finish one) in which every forkful delivers on a pleasant mix of flavor thanks to that Asiago cheese.
If you somehow do get past the pizza menu, Da Vinci's does offer a full menu of grinders and wraps; menu items tend to differ a bit from location to location. The steak and cheese grinder I sampled from Deep River — a mighty fine sandwich filled with chopped, flavorful steak, which could've used a bit more cheese — was not on the Old Lyme menu, for example. Calzones seem to be available universally; a calzone from Deep River was pretty basic (read: a bit of a bore), although not as greasy as some. The ricotta-mozzarella mix was seasoned nicely, but I could've dealt with more mozzarella and less of the mounds and mounds and mounds of ricotta.
I'll stay away from cliché closers about Da Vinci's food being "masterpieces," but here's this: if you don't leave with a Mona Lisa smile, I'd be surprised.
181 Main St., Deep River *
Cuisine: Italian-American with a focus on pizza
Atmosphere: warm and welcoming, there's a few small tables in the Deep River store; takeout does a steady business. Staffers are very courteous
Prices: Moderate; a small cheese pizza is $6.95 and $1.50 for each topping. Specialty pizzas start at $9.95 for a small
Service: Very courteous
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard and Discover
Hours: Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday from 3 to 9 p.m.**
Handicapped access: Decent
*One of a chain of Connecticut pizzerias, including one in Old Lyme
** Hours vary by location; check the website first