Like lots of food-obsessed Charlotteans, my friend in Huntersville is equally occupied with nosing out "the find" in her neck of the woods. So for a while now, I've been hearing about Il Bosco Ristorante & Bar, the 44-seat Italian restaurant in Davidson that Jimmy Hermann opened in February 2011.
Hermann, a native of Brooklyn, New York, is a long-time Charlottean restaurateur with bloodlines traceable to the legendary Si! Ristorante in south Charlotte. Si! in the late 1980s set the standard for style and grace, serving great Tuscan food without pretense. I again wrote about Hermann at the excellent Firenze Ristorante in 2007, which he co-owned. Soon after that business closed (co-owner Giovanni Lorenzi moved on), Hermann found opportunity in Davidson.
"I remember only 15 years ago driving up to Davidson, leaving all the glass and buildings of Charlotte behind and all the trees and open spaces here," he says. Il Bosco means "the woods" in Italian. However, Il Bosco is all about family — the Hermann family. Wife Anne produces the pastries, cookies and biscotti from family recipes, or those "from the block" since their grandmothers, who also lived in Brooklyn, exchanged recipes with neighbors (mostly Italian, some Jewish, hence the Jewish nut cake).
Son Joe is chef. He grew up in Si!'s kitchen. "At 6, he asked for a burner for crème brûlée," Hermann muses. Before joining the family at Il Bosco, Joe was in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, at a Stick Boy Bread Co. shop, an outpost of the renowned family-owned, Boone-based artisan bakery. Joe's wife Tarra is a server with a remarkable memory for customers' preferences in both food and wine. Il Bosco's service is impeccable, in that amiable, neighborly fashion.
After a warm welcome — and they will know your name ("Oh, we know who you are," Tarra informs me with a smile) — what fun to settle in a back corner of this bright, welcoming dining room, beyond the fireplace across from the bar, to a space framed by windows overlooking the fountain on a small patio. In this room surrounded by cheerful eaters from the neighborhood, or the nearby lake, the Hermanns make you feel like a guest at their own semi-private party.
Meanwhile, the kitchen produces dishes that are brilliant in their simplicity. Warm bread arrives with large glasses of wine. The wine list is a selection of smaller Italian wineries. Delicious salads seem to contain all the glories of spring greens in one bite. Our table quickly devours a bowl of fragrant mussels steeped in wine and garlic. My favorite starter, though, is the seared duck breast splayed over a berry sauce and sided with a farro salad enlivened by goat cheese.
No matter your position on carbs, don't skip the pasta here. They are available in two sizes, and the smaller size is plenty to share with a table. Let yourself get swept away with their potato gnocchi folded into a decadently creamy pesto sauce. In the grand tradition of the old neighborhood joint, entrées make the show. For robust eaters, the tender lamb chops rubbed with Dijon and mint are grilled to relative perfection. For a lighter choice, the marinated chicken offers a faintly smoky sweetness. A salad of arugula comes with it, although the sautéed spinach on the a la carte side roster also suits.
Il Bosco's desserts could, and perhaps should, yield another story. Anne Hermann's pignoli amaretti, the classic Italian cookie with a soft almond paste interior and a crunchy pine nut coating, is a must to be savored with espresso or cappuccino. But then all the cookies, pastries (in a display case in front) and desserts are rich, unpretentious, potentially addicting, and, like Il Bosco, infinitely satisfying.
Il Bosco Ristorante & Bar
127 Depot St., Davidson, 704-987-1388. Morning coffee, pastries and tea hours: Tuesday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Lunch hours: Tuesday to Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner hours Monday to Thursday 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. Closed Sundays. Dinner entrée prices range from $18 to $36 for lamb chops. Lunch is around $8. Interior patio. www.ilboscoristorante.com