Last night I stepped back in time. For a couple of hours, I became again the fresh-faced college student who spent a blissful year of her young life in northern Italy, soaking up the sunny atmosphere and enjoying the phenomenal food (when I could afford it). This time travel happened at Brio Tuscan Grille at Newport on the Levee. Once you cross the threshold, be prepared for a healthy dose of la dolce vita.
To start with, the setting is really the genuine article. Restaurants in Italy are clattery, active, crowded places, even the fancy ones. Brio contrasts good-natured bustle and high decibels with airy ceilings and warm butternut-colored stucco walls, ornamented with enormous mirrors, brilliantly polished. Together with the heavy silverware and the thick white tablecloths, as well as the professional staff, these touches proclaim that, din notwithstanding, you have come to a toney place. Brio is staffed with affable, attentive, informed servers who don't hover. The service is personable, not unctuous or over-friendly. The Olive Garden this ain't.
We began with a house specialty flatbread pizza ($9.95), just like I used to get in Bologna: savory pepperoni and sweet roasted red peppers with cheese and herbs on a crust so thin and crispy it's almost a cracker, only infinitely more delicious. Our entrées each deserved a medaglia d'oro: I had the Gorgonzola-encrusted strip steak ($22.95) from the restaurant's signature grilled bistecca selection — fantabulous. Enormous. Cooked to perfection and served with delicate onion straws.
One friend had the fish dell giorno ($18.95) — perch, sautéed in butter and served over linguine with spinach, diced tomatoes and onions — which was melt-in-your-mouth tasty. One could scarcely suppress cries of happiness on eating it (although one diner found it almost, almost, too oily). My other friend chose the shrimp and lobster garganelli ($15.95) with fresh, tasty herb tomato cream sauce, not heavy, and pronounced it too much of a great thing (thank heavens for doggie bags: portions are on the generous side of big here — bring an appetito or that purse you take to wedding receptions). The chopped salad ($4.95) sounded a minor note of disappointment: far too wet and sharp-tasting.
The splendid desserts erased all memory of the salad (in more ways than one). We ordered the house special — a runny-centered warm chocolate cake ($4.95), topped with vanilla-bean gelato and drizzled with caramel glaze. Again, spontaneous cries of wonder after every bite. Also the tiramisu ($4.95) proved lovely: Served in a funky martini glass, the modest portion admirably offset that confection's traditional richness. Its zabaglione was light and dreamy, not a weighty custard.
There's spinach in many of the dishes, which favor a Tuscan theme, and the specialitá di cucina and bistecche are what they seem to do best. The menu is vast, and there are vegetarian choices besides salad. Overall, Brio takes the best family-dining experience Italy has to offer and combines it with the ample portions Americans expect. When they toss in a large dollop of remarkably professional service from the bright young staff, what results is a very fine restaurant experience for not too terribly much money. What else can I say, but "Bravo"? ©
Brio Tuscan Grille
Go: Newport on the Levee
Hours: SundayThursday 11 a.m. 10 p.m.; FridaySaturday 11 a.m.11 p.m.
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Ravioli, flat-bread pizzas and side dishes