The massive bar at Brio Tuscan Grille was packed on a recent Friday evening.
The crowd sipped martinis, draft beer and glasses of wine under three big-screen TVs, taking full advantage of the $2.95 Tuscan Taster menu. It's a real deal with generous appetizer-sized portions and interesting selections such as beef carpaccio.
Brio is part of a high-class chain gang that's elevated Tucson Mall dining over the last couple of years. It's in a massive new building next to the even more massive REI and across a courtyard from H&M, California Pizza Kitchen and the Cheesecake Factory.
It's owned by the Ohio-based Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, which has opened about 40 of the upscale Italian eateries throughout the country (opening here in late June) and knows what it's doing.
Brio's philosophy is "to eat well is to live well," and the company leaves no detail to chance in any part of the dining experience - from the elegant decor that defied its shopping-mall surroundings to the knowledgeable, friendly waitstaff.
And the food, over our two visits, ranged from standout to nothing less than pleasant.
Four smiling hostesses greeted us as we stepped through the towering entryway on our first visit that Friday night.
We were promptly led to a massive booth in the center of the dining area, not far from the bustling open kitchen.
The dinner menu offers plenty of options for pastas, steaks, salads and a variety of Italian favorites.
While perusing, we enjoyed the baked-in-house warm sourdough bread and the seasoned triangles of flat bread that our server immediately brought to our table.
Presentation is everything at Brio. And portions are generous. We selected the ravioli caprese ($9.95) for an appetizer; four arrived on a narrow plate, lined up on a red sauce with a smear of pesto on either end, and nicely garnished with fresh basil and halved grape tomatoes. It was upscale bar food well done, although the pesto, mozzarella and ricotta filling was a little cool on a couple of occasions.
We couldn't resist the lobster bisque ($5.95), which is prepared with a touch of sherry. Served in a small tureen, it was a velvety standout with small bits of lobster and a spicy kick at the end of each spoonful.
For our entrees, we opted for one of the house specialties, the veal marsala classico ($20.95), which was superb. It was advertised as Strauss veal, which is raised crate-free. Three good-sized cutlets arrived on a nearly platter-sized plate. The cutlets were sauteed with a rich mushroom and Marsala sauce and so tender they were easily cut with a fork. The dish came with a side of unmemorable campanelle pasta.
Brio's dinner menu includes nine pasta entrees. The sweet potato and chicken risotto - with roasted chicken, asparagus, Parmigiana-Reggiano, thyme and pine nuts ($15. 25) - sounded interesting, but overall was more proficient than inspired. It usually includes pancetta, but we had asked that it be omitted.
Brio is a salad lover's haven.
The third person in our party opted for the Tuscan Harvest Salad ($13.95) and was rewarded with a massive plate of fresh mixed greens tossed with grilled chicken, mushrooms, apples, almonds and dried cranberries - along with bacon, Gorgonzola, pieces of crisp lavosh bread and a Tuscan Italian dressing. It was the kind of salad where you eat your fill and still have plenty left over for lunch the next day.
On our second visit during Sunday brunch, we ordered the Pasta Brio (rigatoni, grilled chicken and seared mushrooms with a roasted red pepper sauce for $12.25) on the lunch menu and added the Bistecca Insalata for $3.95.
The salad impressed. The plate arrived chilled, with a sharp knife plunged into the lettuce wedge, which was topped by a chilled creamy Parmesan dressing (nicely seasoned with black pepper), chunks of Gorgonzola and a generous topping of small bits of bacon and tomato. We would return just for that (and the lobster bisque).
The pasta was everything we had hoped - a flavorful blend of chicken and mushrooms in a creamy red sauce.
The Eggs Oscar ($13.95), ordered off the brunch menu, looked photo ready, but underwhelmed. The two poached eggs were a tad overdone (we like the yolk to run a little) and the crab and shrimp cake could have been a bit more moist. The grilled asparagus, artichokes and spinach added nice color, but would have been a bit tastier with more of the housemade hollandaise. We also would have liked more potatoes.
Brio's dessert tray includes a tower of dolchinos ($2.95 a piece) - samplings of desserts such as tiramisu and carrot cake presented in small glasses. They can be ordered on their own or in multiples.
They are great to share (we highly recommend the mocha panna cotta) and are a guilt-free way to heed that last call to enjoy the good life.
Review: Brio Tuscan Grille
150 W. Wetmore Road, next to REI at the Tucson Mall. 887-2388; www.brioitalian.com
• Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
• Family call: An extensive kids menu, with options that include a choice of soft drink, lemonade or milk.
• Alcohol: Full bar and a wine list that offers a generous selection of wines by the glass and bottles in a range of prices.
• Noise level: Can be loud.
• Vegetarian options: Yes. Ask your server.
• Gluten-free: Yes. Ask your server.
• Dress: Casual.
• Reservations: Accepted.
• Prices: Entrees top out at just under $24.
• Happy hour: Specials include a $5 Martini Night on Thursdays and a $2.95 Tuscan Taster bar menu from 3 to 7 p.m. and 9 to close Mondays through Fridays.
• Brunch: Until 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
• Parking: Depending on when you arrive, the lot can remind you of Black Friday. Prepare to circle around for a close space. The mall also offers valet parking.