The glass-enclosed entryway to a split-down-the-middle building had all the elements of a parable. On the right was a door leading to a popular coffee shop. An identical door on the left opened onto a busy Italian restaurant.
Which way would I turn? Was this an instance of fate or free will? And would gelato be involved? Well, I went left, and though it was a split-second decision, I still know I made the right choice.
Because while a couple of Caffe DaVinci's dishes left me less than thrilled (call this also a split decision), the frequently filled, family-friendly Upper Arlington eatery got so many things right I can recommend it easily - especially to people who crave homemade pasta and grandma-style Italian-American cuisine with a decent glass of vino.
This bright and molto-casual cafe, which is a spinoff of and heir to recipes from the former white-tablecloth DaVinci's (a three-decade mainstay in Columbus), looked so much like a modern coffee shop, I initially wondered if I'd stumbled through the wrong door. But when the comforting aromas of garlic and tomato sauce infiltrated my nostrils, I let the Sinatra tune playing lead me right to the counter.
I then realized this DaVinci's was more about proverbs than parables. See, after ordering, you're handed a weighted plastic number with an aphoristic phrase in Italian on one side and (appropriate for this bifurcated setup) English on the other.
After choosing your simple table - there's plenty of roomy booths too - you fetch your own bread and water. I didn't mind this DIY aspect at all, as I never had an empty glass and the bread station featured unlimited soft focaccia, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Pepper mills and cheese shakers stood ready on every table.
Starting off with my top picks, I've gotta mention the Manicotti ($9). Silky sheets of pliant homemade pasta enveloped a surprisingly delicate mixture of ground beef and ricotta cheese with a healthy sprinkling of nutmeg.
Staying on theme, I chose half marinara sauce (very nice - a little tart, a little rich, with long-cooked onions and bits of fresh basil) and half alfredo (heavy creamy, cheesy and garlicky). You can combine the two sauces into a pink hybrid, and then it's called Salsa Rosa.
The Lasagna ($9.25) featured the same kind of light, lovely and tender homemade pasta, only stacked in about half a dozen layers and spackled together - with some restraint - with meat sauce and ricotta. It's an old-school oohs and aahs-er that was - characteristically for this place - bluntly served, not prettily plated.
I ordered the Chicken Roma ($9) with homemade spaghetti in place of the (not-homemade) capellini, and the noodles were another pasta triumph. If they were a tad watery (likely not perfectly drained), that was a minor qualm. The simple chicken part of the equation came doused in DaVinci's friendly marinara and tasted like it'd been marinated in Italian dressing first.
Though recommended by a roving waitress, the night I gnawed on the Gnocchi ($9.25), it was neither soft, supple nor at all integrated with its good meat sauce. But it was clearly homemade - call it a highly edible disappointment.
DaVinci's thickish but crispy, bready-crusted La Nostra Pizza ($11 for 10-inch) was better than what you'd get at most decent pizzerias. It came topped with thin pepperoni, standard 'shrooms and standout sausage that was garlicky, spicy and housemade.
Salads were fine enough, if no big whoop. I preferred the lively vinaigrette of the above-average DaVinci Italian salad ($3 add-on with an entree) over the sweet-side dressing of the Pronto ($4) - with raw broccoli and raw cauliflower plus mandarin oranges.
Soupwise, I liked the homey, light and genuinely chicken-brothed and sausage meatbally Wedding Soup better than the routine veggie soup-like Minestrone (both $5/bowl).
Which brings us to gelato. DaVinci's actually has a back-room gelateria and proudly touts its in-house-made quality. If sweeter than I usually like, and less intense than great Italian gelati, I still enjoyed the seductively smooth textures and genuine Italian styles. Try the Stracciatella (like chocolate chip), cantaloupe or Donatella (chocolate, hazelnut and caramel). Or, fittingly, get two different scoops and split them with a friend.