In the immortal words of the English bard, "All the world's a stage," and on this early evening in Frontenac, one corner of the set is faux-rustic, softly lit and filled with actors. White drapes flow from the ceilings and weathered plaster paints the room with yellow. For lo, we are at Brio Tuscan Grille, a concept restaurant that, according to its Web site, "brings the pleasures of the Tuscan country villa to the American city." As always, we enter to a huge round of applause and a noticeable and ever-increasing rush of catcalls. In this village we have as many enemies as friends, and must be ever alert to the threat of a well-thrown knife.
We're gearing up for a visit to a nearby market called Plaza Frontenac and need some fortification. Brio's been on our list for a while. Often on the way to the Plaza, we have passed and wondered what lay within. Word around town is that many divorcees mingle and drink here, distraught at their lonely lives and looking for suitors willing to forgive their tainted pasts. Many single men and few devious bequeathed line up to lap at their heels.
After a longish wait for a servant (we assume they had to find one who spoke English), we are presented with a parchment on which a very impressive selection of spirits is listed. There's the Bocce Ball (amaretto and fresh-squeezed orange juice); Italian lemonade (Level vodka, Tanqueray No. 10 gin, Grand Marnier and lemonade); the Tuscan Sunset (Absolut Mandarin, Bacardi Coco, créme de banana and fresh-squeezed orange juice).
All seem well-imagined, but on this unseasonably chilly evening in Tuscany, we're thinking coffee. Specifically, Café DiSaronno: amaretto, Godiva chocolate liqueur, Grand Marnier and coffee. It arrives steaming hot and immediately we touch it with cream, which levels the bitterness and brings out the essence of the many spirits. The sweet taste of amaretto, which is made with burnt sugar, herbs and fruits soaked in apricot oil, prevails over the Godiva and Grand Marnier. Combined, the drink is a welcome respite from plain old coffee, nutty and fruity. It's as deep and complex as Dante's Inferno.
One of our guilty pleasures is the Italian concept restaurant, and we will defend to our death the quality of food at the other corner of Tuscan St. Louis, the Macaroni Grill, which is due east of Brio, down a winding path and over a few hills in a little villa called Brentwood. But whereas that place is oft frequented by the peasant class, Brio serves mainly the landowners. They arrive on the backs of the heartiest breed of Lexus horses and enter the restaurant barely winded. Living is much easier here; our fingernails are clean, our hands soft.
As we sip our Café DiSaronno, Don Bernie Miklasz arrives, and immediately villagers line up to pay their respects. As a well-dressed gentleman kisses Don Bernie's hand, the sportswriter nods in appreciation. Within his eyes, however, is a darkness. Though the Godfather of the sports page is gracious and exudes power, one nod to his henchman and the poor admirer could land in a ditch. But at Brio Tuscan Grille, such acts of violence are seldom necessary. The well-fed and heartily quenched citizens keep the outside world offstage. Here, the drama unfolds slowly and without incident, like an aged scroll on which the secrets of the Old World are carefully scripted.