Diner: Unchained Italian

Despite its size, Bravo! offers food good enough for a small trattoria

I love Italian food, but I'm a bit of a snob about this popular cuisine. Vegetables and herbs must be fresh. Pasta should be al dente. And the presentation must be as thoughtful and colorful as the preparation. I was pleasantly surprised with the polished flair that Bravo! demonstrated in meeting — in some cases, exceeding — those standards.

The huge boxlike building on Montgomery Road past Fields-Ertel seemed to foretell standard, predictable fare. We arrived without reservations about 7 p.m., were told there would be a 15-20 minute wait and presented a vibrating beeper. Uh-oh. Could this be the Italian Bob Evans?

While waiting in the bar, we reviewed the surprising wine list while munching on crunchy Parmesan breadsticks. The beeper went off sooner than expected, and we were escorted through the enormous room to a table at the far end. The warehouse ceiling and partially stuccoed walls in golden umber tones were partially covered with faux Roman columns and beams. While an interesting, casual décor, there was an uncomfortable noise level for what was otherwise an engaging meal.

The wine menu had captivated me. There were several options by the glass and by the bottle of an unexpected array of reds and whites. I've sipped Vernaccia in fine little trattorias nestled in the Tuscan hills and was told then that this crisp, white wine was available only within close proximity of the towers of San Gimignano. For years, that exclusivity has served as one of my rationales for returning to Tuscany. I have to scratch that excuse off my list now that I've found my way to Bravo!

Our server brought small loaves of white bread and foccacia, partnered with olive oil, blended with sun-dried tomatoes and herbs that were enticing and a lovely accompaniment to the Vernaccia. The golden fried Calamari Fritta ($7.25) arrived promptly, with a light herbed coating over the supple seafood. The subtle flavors combined nicely with two sauces: a fresh, vibrant tomato marinara and a vivid garlic aioli sauce with an undercurrent of lemon. While both sauces were flavorful, the aioli was scrumptious, reminiscent of both the Italian and Provençal countryside.

The Bruschetta Pomodoro with Shrimp ($8.95) could be served as a satisfying lunch. Thick peasant toast was brushed with garlic butter and topped with chopped artichoke hearts, shrimp, grape tomatoes, basil and Parmesan for a spectacular and zesty dish. The deep, full flavors brought a small Florence trattoria to mind as I took another sip of wine.

In spite of the 200-plus seating capacity, the food was prepared with the attention of intimate trattorias that seat no more than 30. Our server explained that fresh, quality ingredients and made-to-order servings have been guiding principals of the owners, brothers who regularly visit the restaurant from their home base in Columbus, Ohio.

We chose to share a Caesar Classico ($3.25), which our waiter had expediently divided onto two plates. The romaine was crisp and tumbled with croutons and large grates of Parmesan. While the salad was pleasant, not memorable, there was a bit too much dressing for my taste.

For entrées, we passed over the pizzas (although we spotted several at surrounding tables) and grilled meats (for those who must order steaks or chops) and perused the pasta options. The moist slices of Chicken Scallopini Romano ($12.95) were layered in a full-flavored, buttery sauce with Portobello mushrooms, tomatoes, capers and Romano cheese. Partnered with herbed pasta, this was a rich and satisfying meal. My partner was pleased with the modestly priced Cappellini Pomodoro ($9.75) and somewhat grudgingly shared it with me. The angel hair pasta was al dente and topped by a lively tomato cream sauce with fresh basil and wood-grilled chicken pieces.

It's difficult not to be tempted by the desserts to accompany a cappuccino or espresso ($2.95). So we carefully considered the offerings and chose the Chocolate Truffle Cake ($4.95) and the Zabaione Fragole ($4.95). The presentation of the cake beautifully illustrated the construction details: rich devil's food cake arched over white truffle with butter cream, drizzled with chocolate sauce and dusted with cocoa and modest scoops of vanilla bean and chocolate mocha gelato. Served in a large white ramekin, the creamy smooth zabaione coated a large scoop of lemon-orange ice and was dusted with cinnamon.

Aside from the noise, there wasn't much I didn't like about Bravo! Especially when I crave a glass of Vernaccia and haven't the time or the fare for quick trip to Tuscany.

Go: 12110 Montgomery Road, Symmes Twp.

Call: 513-583-0583

Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Prices: Reasonable-moderate

Payment: Major credit cards

Vegetarian Friendliness: Several options available and will modify if requested.

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