What if there were an Italian chain of American restaurants in Tuscany? Perhaps they'd be based in Florence and specialize in hearty American fare like meat loaf, mac 'n' cheese, bologna sandwiches on white bread and big fat cheeseburgers with fries and chili on the side. Would these Tuscan restaurateurs serve up our food in retro-looking American diners called Swell (or some other quaint Americanism)? Or would they build barns, call 'em Hee-Haw and stuff 'em full of honest-to-goodness feed posters and farm implements imported from the Heartland? Would they try to "Italianize" the food with olive oil, rosemary and sides of risotto?
I pose these questions because even as many American restaurant chains are busy colonizing other countries, some corporations are replicating those foreign cultures right here so that Average Joe's family doesn't have to trundle any farther than the local mall to eat like a world traveler. The latest of these packaged concepts to hit St. Louis is Brio Tuscan Grille.
Open since November, Brio is one family of restaurants operated by the Columbus, Ohio-based Bravo Development Group; besides the ten Brio restaurants sprinkled throughout the Midwest and South, the group also owns Bon Vie Bistro and Bar, Tuscan Bakery and Bravo! Cucina Italiana -- all three Italian-themed -- and Lindey's Restaurant and Bar, a casual American eatery. Brio's menu is nearly identical to the one at Bravo!, only Brio dishes it out in a sleeker, glossier setting -- more in tune, no doubt, with Plaza Frontenac's demographics.
Tuscany may well be Italy's most elegant region and, at the same time, its most humble. Superb restaurants, both casual and fancy, abound, and the people are known for their down-to-earth friendliness. Frontenac ain't exactly Tuscan villa country, but Brio tries to capture that feeling in a huge room (and I do mean huge, as in 8,000 square feet). Long sheets of white fabric flow from the center of the high, domed ceiling, imparting an over-the-top theatrical look. Slabs of imported Arabescato marble topping the half-height partitions, cypress wood floors, faux columns and plaster walls and white tablecloths continue the elegant motif, while huge, amber-hued dome chandeliers provide a glow as warm as a Tuscan afternoon. (Why sheets of white paper cover the tablecloths is a mystery; should one request crayons?)
Brio paints the Tuscan food theme in broad strokes: You won't find any cuttlefish and octopus stew or braised rabbit, or a single tagliatelle noodle here. What the restaurant does offer, though, is simple food with more than a nod toward authenticity, served in a pleasant and festive (if not particularly noisy) setting.
Once you're seated -- which may take up to two hours on a busy weekend (limited reservations are accepted) -- fresh, crusty sourdough bread baked in the wood-fired forno (that's Italian for oven!) arrives via one of the many fresh-faced servers. We started our meal with calamari fritto misto, a common appetizer but a good test for any Italian restaurant. Served with two dipping sauces -- fresh pomodoro (tomato!) and velvety, lemony aioli (that'd be your garlic mayonnaise) -- the mound of fried squid and sliced pepperoncini was light, with none of the telltale chewiness typical of overfrying. More 1940s steak house than 21st-century Italian, bistecca insalata comes with a hefty steak knife so you can slice through the giant wedge of iceberg lettuce slathered with a delicious Parmesan dressing, crumbled Gorgonzola, bacon and bland, out-of-season plum tomatoes. Good, despite the pale tomatoes. Tossed field greens was an even more satisfying blend, jazzed up with Gorgonzola, pine nuts (and more of those tomatoes) and tossed with a light balsamic vinegar dressing. On one visit the salad was served straight from the fridge, but on a return venture it was just above room temperature, which allowed all those flavors to meld beautifully.
Brio calls itself a Tuscan steak and chop house. I don't know if such an animal exists in Tuscany (chicken, seafood, duck and pork are more popular there than beef), but Brio's grilled pork chops are superb: twin thick chops perfectly grilled with a crisp exterior and surprisingly juicy middle. A drizzle of a creamy Parmesan sauce elevated the dish beyond mere chop-house fare. Just as pleasing was chicken "under the brick," a flattened breast that really is grilled under a brick -- a traditional Tuscan method that quickly sears the meat while retaining juiciness. The aroma of rosemary wafted up from the concentrated mushroom-red wine sauce surrounding the breast. Both dishes came with "Tuscan" mashed potatoes, which are actually garlic mashed potatoes expertly done. Chicken Milanese pomodoro retained its crisp Romano breading, even when topped with mozzarella and positioned on a bed of herbed linguine in a light tomato sauce. (All meat and fish dishes come with a salad.)
There's room for a few pastas on the menu. Like, for instance, Mike's Pasta Toscano, a reasonable-size serving (as in: not the huge platter found in some Italian eateries) of garganelli noodles tossed with a creamy meat sauce. This hand-rolled pasta was new to me; it looks like penne, only narrower. And that wood-fired oven makes great flatbreads and pizzas that shouldn't be ignored, all fashioned from house-made dough. The pollo al forno flatbread was thin and crisp, baked with loads of grilled chicken, bacon, scallions and cheese. Combined with a salad, this would make for a good meal.
Desserts are always a struggle after a big meal, but our party finally settled on crème brûlée and a special chocolate-soufflé cake. The cake was light and moist, accented by a small scoop of vanilla gelato. Although perfectly torched for a dark, caramelized sugar topping, the crème brûlée suffered from a lingering refrigerator aftertaste, detracting from its otherwise cool creaminess. An extensive selection of specialty coffee is available, from espresso to brews spiked with rum, bourbon or assorted liqueurs.
Brio offers a large selection of wines by the bottle, many from Tuscany and surrounding regions. A handful of reds and whites are available by the glass and will run you anywhere from $6 to $10; bottle prices range from $17 to $95. When I ordered an inexpensive Orvieto, the server returned with a revised list -- it turned out she'd inadvertently supplied the old one. Evidently the light, dry Umbrian wine wasn't selling well around here and a pinot grigio had taken its place. If you're ordering a bottle, make sure to inquire about the vintage, because, disappointingly, they're not listed. Eight sparkling wines (by the bottle only) and five ports and sherries round out the roster.
Brio isn't a place where you want to dawdle, as you would in a true Tuscan trattoria. The place is packed most weekends and a few weeknights; the bar area is a magnet for well-heeled young professionals and the noise level is at a constant high pitch. That said, Sunday nights and midweek seem to be good times to avoid the masses. Better northern Italian cuisine is doubtless available elsewhere (Lafayette Square's recently opened Eleven Eleven Mississippi comes to mind), but Brio seems to have captured a slice of the Tuscan sun and packaged it without homogenizing to the point of serving grits and calling it polenta.