Dining With the Brio

BRIO Tuscan Grille

BRIO in Legacy Village bills itself as a Tuscan grille. In fact, the place is about as Tuscan as a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, which is to say not very. It's more like Tuscan with a strong American accent. But then, any restaurant that offered genuine Tuscan food — famed for its saltless bread, salty salami, bean dishes, organ meats, game and general austerity — would probably fail after two weeks.

BRIO is in no danger of failing. The restaurant is winning the enthusiastic patronage of many East Siders, and appears to have no trouble filling its 200-plus seats even in the middle of the week; it's a good idea to make reservations. Columbus-based BDI (short for Bravo! Development Inc.) created the Brio concept, and now has 11 locations around the country (along with its landmark Lindey's in Columbus and BRIO's sister Bravo! Cucina Italiana concept). BDI boasts that the chain ranks among the highest in the restaurant industry for its average unit sales. Nation's Restaurant News, a leading food-service trade journal, awarded Brio its "Hot Concepts" prize in 2002.

Faux Tuscan, real Tuscan, whatever: The food at BRIO is good. You'll find many of the usual Italian-American restaurant dishes, as well as some excellent steaks and chops, all prepared well and simply using quality ingredients and served by a competent staff in splendid surroundings. You won't find much to challenge either the kitchen's skills or patrons' palates, but at least BRIO has not fallen prey to the clichés that afflict so many Italian-American chain restaurants. There's no tidal wave of red sauce, no waiters looking like "Godfather" wannabes toting oversized plates of oversauced, overcheesed, overcooked pasta. Nor will you be offered such oxymoronic (or just plain moronic) dishes as chicken scampi, tomato Alfredo sauce or soft breadsticks.

This dining room is a knockout. It's a vast space, made almost cozy by the cascades of fabric that sweep down from the lofty ceiling, lending the room the look of a particularly elegant tent and absorbing excess noise as well. Walls are covered with antiqued Venetian-style plaster dotted with framed posters and covers of vintage Italian magazines. Columns and arches separate the various areas of the dining room. Seating, most of it in oversized, damask-upholstered booths, is remarkably comfortable. You can watch the staff do its thing in the open kitchen that stretches along the back wall.

As soon as you've settled in, order a BRIO bellini. Better yet, order a whole pitcher of BRIO bellinis ($5.95 the glass, $14.95 the pitcher). BRIO's over-the-top version of this Venetian classic is slushy, peachy and totally addictive. It's not exactly the drink as invented at Harry's Bar in Venice, but sometimes tinkering with a classic yields impressive results.

Appetizers at BRIO are, alas, a disappointment. If there's one thing that sets the restaurants and trattorias of Florence and all of Tuscany apart, it's an incredible variety of interesting and delicious antipasti. At BRIO, you'll find only about a half-dozen items, most of them fairly ordinary. They're good, but not special. A mixed fry of calamari and pepperoncini ($8.50) is a safe choice. Rings and tentacles of calamari and tiny hot peppers are lightly breaded and perfectly cooked, crisp and tender. They're served with marinara sauce and aioli (garlic-flavored mayonnaise) for dipping ($8.50). Mixing the two is a good idea: The occasional bite of a spicy-hot pepper keeps the blander, fried squid from becoming too boring. Shoestring-cut zucchini gets the same light breading and a quick trip through the deep fryer. A generous tangle of zucchini strings with two dipping sauces ($6.95) makes for a pleasant, if unexciting, starter.

Bruschetta ($8.95) arrives with two different toppings, both delicious: grilled shrimp with aioli, and fresh mozzarella with roasted red peppers. If you're not too squeamish to try raw meat, choose beef carpaccio: a slice of top-quality tenderloin with a salad of field greens, aioli and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese ($8.95).

The restaurant boasts a wood-burning oven and turns out some creditable pizzas and flatbreads with the unmistakable crispness and delicious smokiness that only a wood fire can impart. They make an excellent first course. We recommend a thin-crusted pizza Margherita with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil ($9.95) or a buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil pizza on a thicker crust (also $9.95). For a taste of Tuscany with a touch of Beverly Hills designer pizzeria thrown in, opt for a thin-crusted pizza with grilled chicken, bacon and scallions ($10.95).

Salads are mostly a la carte, though some entrees will include your choice of a side salad. All the salads we tried were priced at $4.95. They're fresh, crisp and served on chilled plates. The BRIO chopped salad consists of mixed greens, tomatoes, olives, onions and feta cheese dressed with mild (and, to our tastes, rather sparsely applied) red-wine vinaigrette. The tasty Caesar salad seems to have not so much as a whiff of anchovy, but plenty of Parmesan cheese. The Bistecca salad, a wedge of ice-cold iceberg lettuce with bleu cheese-and-bacon dressing, pays homage to the traditions of the great steakhouses of the past. A basket of warm, chewy sourdough bread, more reminiscent of San Francisco than of Tuscany, accompanies the salad course.

Tuscany and its capital city Florence are famous throughout Italy for quality beef and big juicy steaks. In keeping with the Tuscan theme, excellent steak is a BRIO specialty. The T-bone and porterhouse steaks typical of Florence are missing, but BRIO's strips and filets fill the bill admirably. A pair of tournedos, fork-tender and cooked to a perfect medium rare, as ordered, gets a drizzle of luscious Hollandaise sauce ($19.50). Bistecca alla Fiorentina (beefsteak Florentine style) is a superb 14-ounce strip that's melt-in-your-mouth tender and full of great beef flavor.

BRIO's grill also turns out moist and tender pork chops, beautifully browned around the edges and redolent of rosemary ($16.25). Lamb chops ($18.95) and salmon ($17.95) round out the restaurant's grilled-meat offerings.

Pastas, many with the decidedly un-Tuscan addition of grilled chicken, range in price from $9.95 for spaghettini with tomato sauce to $13.75 for garganelli (short, twisted pasta) with bacon, Parmesan cheese, spinach and, of course, grilled chicken in a cream sauce. If you're really into fowl, you can order a whole bird roasted in BRIO's wood-burning oven and flavored with lemon ($16.95). The chicken is cooked perfectly: the meat tender and moist, skin crisp and lightly seasoned. Choose either potatoes or one of BRIO's pasta specialties as a side.

For dessert, we suggest the warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream ($5.50) or BRIO's silky and smooth creme brulee ($4.50). If you're having trouble making a decision, and are not counting carbs, the restaurant offers a dessert trio, including chocolate cake, crème brûlée and a wedge of housemade signature cheesecake for $12.95 and well worth the splurge. n

BRIO Tuscan Grille, Legacy Village, 24325 Cedar Road, Lyndhurst, (216) 297-9232. Hours: Sun-Thu 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. (lunch selections include a number of sandwiches and salads), Fri and Sat 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sun bellini brunch 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Both the dining room and restrooms are easily accessible. All major credit cards are accepted.

Share this story: