REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
In the greater Philadelphia area, Italian restaurant chains are like daffodils in May. They are everywhere. I’m not even sure this is a complete list, but those I have seen in the region are Olive Garden, Carabba’s, Uno, Bertucci’s, Buca di Beppo, Spaghetti Warehouse, Maggiano’s and Macaroni Grill, not to mention the ubiquitous pizza chains and independent Italian restaurants, from the most upscale (a minimum of $135 per person plus wine at Vetri) to the most downscale.
I recently counted 15 Italian and pizza restaurants within a five-mile radius of our house. A few months ago Ristorante Primavera in Wayne went out of business after 28 years. “When we opened, there was just one other Italian restaurant in the immediate area,” said owner Humberto Degli-Esposti, “but now there are so many it’s impossible to compete. They keep opening, and people want to try out what’s new.”
I checked with TheDailyMeal.com on Aug. 4. It surveyed those who visit the website about their favorite Italian restaurant chains. According to those who took the survey, the number one chain was Bravo Cucina Italiana. There are seven Bravo restaurants in Pennsylvania, but five are in the Pittsburgh area.
The only one in the Delaware Valley is a huge 300-seat operation in the Willow Grove Mall with an outdoor patio that seats about 50 and a tented mall terrace that can accommodate about 100. The five-year-old restaurant’s interior is opulent, similar to Barclay Prime or some other Trump-ish steakhouse, but the prices are surprisingly low, with most appetizers under $10 and most entrees under $20, with several around $15. And throughout the summer there is a three-course special for just $20.
“Some people look inside and assume it is too upscale, so they walk away,” said John Azarian, Bravo’s former executive chef who is now their general manager. “If they looked at our menu, they’d see how reasonable our prices are. About 30 percent of our customers come from the mall.”
The Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, Inc., which owns 120 Bravo Cucina Italiana restaurants and Brio Tuscan Grill restaurants (a bit more upscale) in the U.S., started in 1981 in Columbus, Ohio. A Columbus resident, Sue Doody, and her sons, Rick and Chris, were the founders. The restaurant was designed to mimic the courtyard of a Roman ruin and the high energy of an Italian feast. The company plans to open a Brio Tuscan Grill in King of Prussia, but they are not able to supply any specifics yet as to when that will be.
In our early August introduction to Bravo, a traditional Caesar salad with homemade crunchy croutons was fresh-tasting and garlicky, one of the best we have had in years and for just $4.99. We recently paid $12 for a Caesar salad in a very upscale Chester County restaurant that had nothing on this one.
Rustic homemade beef and pork meatballs with creamy stone-ground polenta and a savory tomato Marsala sauce ($9.99) helped push the dial forward a few more clicks on the evolution of contemporary Italian chains. Crispy shrimp Napoli was dolloped with green onions and spiked with charred Napoli sauce ($12.99), a tomato-based sauce which normally includes basil, bay leaf, thyme and oregano, among other ingredients. Both appetizers were literally entree-sized. If you finish these ample appetizers, there is no way you can also finish an entree.
Grilled tilapia with crab and shrimp was a towering ode to seafood accompanied by fingerling potatoes, roasted peppers, zucchini and spinach ($20.99). Lobster ravioli was imbued with sauteed shrimp, an elegant tomato cream sauce and pesto bread crumbs ($18.99)
A warm chocolate peanut butter brownie kissed by butter cream and a warm cookie butter blondie with gelato, caramel and sugared pretzels were both unctuous, crazy good and just $3.49 each.
Cocktails, like everything else, are reasonably priced. Two that we thoroughly enjoyed were the knockout sangria rosa — raspberry vodka, fresh pineapple and strawberries and an Italian liqueur on the rocks ($8.50) — and a raspberry mojito with swagger — Bacardi raspberry rum with fresh lime, muddled mint and raspberry on the rocks ($8.50). Both were very refreshing summer drinks. There is a large variety of wines by the glass, with several as low as $6.95.
Server Mike McNulty and assistant manager Nishera Barr were both friendly and charming.
There is a beautifully appointed room that is ideal for private parties of up to 20 people. Lots of parking is available within steps of the restaurant. For more information, call 215-657-1131 or visit www.bravoitalian.com