I rarely devote my limited space here to a chain, particularly one in a sterile mall, even a mall that calls itself a "collection." Yet Brio, one of a small chain of Italian restaurants from the BDI group in Columbus, Ohio, is a rare exception to my rule. It has created a good deal of excitement since it opened at Somerset two years ago.
In the first place, if you enter Brio from the parking lot entrance in south Somerset, you'd never sense you are in a mall where you might be intimidated by fashionable salespeople who will recognize you at once as a K-Mart shopper. Instead you'll walk into what appears to be a handsome long ballroom in an Italian villa, seating two hundred, which features an unusually high ceiling, lush draperies and rustic gold-painted walls full of contemporary and classical Italian prints. And although the skillful servers are liveried and the tables are covered with heavy white cloths, Brio is a comfortable trattoria where most patrons are casually dressed.
They come to eat traditional classics, beginning with generously proportioned appetizers like calamari frito misto ($9.95), gently breaded calamari rings bordered by both a pomodoro sauce and a zestier creamy horseradish sauce. Tuna caponata, beef carpaccio and shrimp with risotto cakes are other starters offered by chef Scott Parkhurst who previously worked at Buca di Beppo.
But I would go light on the appetizers because you should sample the bruschetta and flatbreads with the delightful margherita ($10.95), composed of layers of mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes smothering a thin crispy flatbread, capable of satisfying four diners. You can complicate things with a flatbread laden with chicken, tomato, bacon, feta cheese, onion, tomato sauce and a Parmesan drizzle, but sometimes too many ingredients make it difficult to savor the individual components in such a preparation.
For an extra $3.95 you can choose an ample Caesar, chopped, or bistecca salad to accompany your entrée. The chopped greens, feta, tomatoes, olives, onions and cucumber bathed with red wine vinaigrette surpasses the other two which are merely decent. The bread basket that comes with contains a first-rate crusty Italian sourdough and interesting flaxseed crackers.
The genuflection to Tuscany in Brio's name is found under the "Grille" section of the menu. One traditional dish, Chicken "Under the Brick" ($16.95), employs not an Old World brick but a metal weight that applies pressure to a chicken breast on the wood grill. The breast, accompanied by mashed potatoes and mushroom Marsala sauce, emerges from the procedure suitably charred and surprisingly moist. Other wood-grilled items include salmon with citrus pesto, tomatoes and asparagus and marinated center-cut pork chops.
Tuscany's love affair with beef is reflected under the "Bistecca" section of the menu that offers five different cuts and showcases an American invention, "surf and turf" ($26.95), with the lobster in the surf replaced by a crab cake.
One good test of a serious Italian kitchen is how it deals with veal. The Milanese ($19.95), a generous helping of very lightly breaded tender scaloppini in an equally light lemon-caper sauce, easily passes the test. Among other house specialties are gorgonzola lamb chops, lasagna Bolognese and a whole roasted chicken basted in a lemon-pepper marinade.
Brio offers 10 imaginatively constructed pasta dishes that are, as one might expect, the most inexpensive ($12.50-$15.95) items on the menu. Pasta Brio, penne with chicken and mushrooms in a roasted red-pepper sauce was a bit bland one night and rather skimpy on the chicken. A choice with more life or perhaps even brio is the scampi with garlic, cherry tomatoes, toasted pine nuts and white wine over angel hair pasta. Brio's gossamer angel hair, perhaps the most difficult of all pastas for a busy kitchen to prepare well, does not disappoint.
A well-run chain can bulk purchase an extensive cellar of intriguing wines and pass the savings on to the consumer. Such is the case with Brio (as well as with its BDI cousin Bon Vie upstairs at Somerset) with, for example, two serviceable Italian table wines, pinot grigio and chianti, sold for a welcome $19 and $21, respectively.
The best bets for dessert are the dolchinos ($7.25), mini-servings of tiramisu, crème brûlee, chocolate zabaglione and a knockout lush strawberry panna cotta composed of strawberry shortcake, vanilla bean panna cotta and sponge cake, all of which is covered with strawberry sauce and whipped cream. Another dieter's downfall is the rich chocolate torte covered with vanilla bean gelato and chocolate syrup.
Brio's menu is the same throughout the chain, a fact that will become apparent when BDI opens its second Michigan outlet in Clinton Township this month. Sometimes the cookie-cutter approach works when it guarantees a certain quality level achieved through a nationwide trial-and-error process. This is certainly the case with Brio which is able to turn out admirable Italian country fare with well-trained servers, managers and chefs working together in tasteful surroundings to create the illusion that it's a one-of-a-kind place, even if the concept originated in Columbus.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.