Ariving west across town on River Road in the dark, Tucson doesn't seem all that different from what it was 35 years ago. But once you turn south on First Avenue and then west on Wetmore Road, the traffic gets more frantic and the signs brighter as you approach Tucson Mall—and the chain restaurants multiply thick and fast.
Count 'em: Boston Market, Domino's, Carl's Jr., Applebee's, Taco Bell, Starbucks, Sweet Tomatoes, California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory (the mere name explains a lot about the U.S. obesity rate), Olive Garden, Mimi's, Red Robin, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Cold Stone Creamery.
Brio Tuscan Grille, a 40-strong chain out of Ohio, landed near the epicenter of this dense brand-name gastronomic cluster last summer. It occupies a big, handsome building next to REI, across the way from Cheesecake Factory and just a hop, skip and a jump from Olive Garden—of which it is basically a higher-class version. Like Olive Garden, Brio serves up an Americanized version of central Italian food in an American fantasy of what Italy might be like—except for the three giant-screen TVs that dominate the otherwise-beautiful bar at one end of the room. (I have to say, there's something about the combination of fine dining and ESPN that just doesn't click for me.) But this sort of thing is probably exactly what it takes to propagate a successful Italian-restaurant concept in a world where appetites are attuned to stuffed-crust pizzas, and every bar is a sports bar.
Despite the TVs and that chi-chi final "e" in "Grille," Brio has its points. The staff is warm and attentive; the big room is opulently and pleasantly decorated; and the place is comfortable and not too noisy. Most of the food is quite tasty, and some of the things that really count—the bread, the salads—are terrific. But the general style tends to be complicated and over-rich in a way that's more about Columbus, Ohio, than Firenze. And, for better or worse, it's at Tucson Mall. In other words, Vivace has nothing to worry about.
I arrived with my friends Barbara and Kathy on a freezing Tuesday night and was happy to see the place bustling with folks who were clearly having a good time. Our waiter was sweet and very young. He couldn't recommend a Chianti, not having tasted them—but was patient with our dithering over the menu. As we tried not to fill up on the excellent house-made bread (featuring a fresh, chewy interior with a shattering crust) and super-excellent rosemary-parmesan crispy cracker bread, we decided on the bruschetta quattro ($14.95) to start. It was two pieces each of four types of bruschetta, topped with roasted red pepper; roasted tomato and ricotta; sliced steak; and prosciutto, respectively. Each of these, to my mind, involved too many ingredients. Asparagus really does nothing for prosciutto, and they all were tarted up with melty cheese and balsamic "drizzle," which had the effect of making them sweet. Basically, it was bar food—made with lots of fat to soak up alcohol and lots of salt to stimulate thirst, and cloying after a bite or two.
Next, we split a Brio chopped salad ($4.95), not because we're cheap, but so we didn't get too full to enjoy our entrées and desserts, which was already a possibility after those bruschette. We asked for the salad dry, with oil and vinegar on the side—but it came dressed with a good vinaigrette, which is probably the only way it comes. It was pretty fantastic—a perfectly balanced mixture of lettuce, tomatoes, cukes, olives, red onion and feta, all icy cold, crunchy and chopped fine to be easy to tuck in to. We loved it.
Up to that point, the service had been top-notch, but after the salad came a lull. This was OK. We had lots to talk about, and I was on my second glass of Castello di Meleto ($12.25 on special, and worth every penny), but we did begin to wonder what had happened to our entrées. If we'd been, say, a bored, older restaurant-going couple, we might have gotten restless. But just about the time we began to notice the hiatus, a manager came by to tell us that Kathy's crab and shrimp cakes were "still coming up to temperature," and that it would be a few more minutes.
We appreciated his attentiveness and the ETA, yet we couldn't help speculating. Clearly, the cakes had been very cold. Did that mean they'd been frozen? Well, probably, and that was fine, except that it normally never would have occurred to us to think about whether they'd been manufactured someplace else. And were the cakes actually defying the laws of physics—stubbornly refusing to be heated up—or had our waiter or someone in the kitchen screwed up?
When our entrées finally arrived, the three very nice seafood cakes ($22.95) were succulent, nicely seasoned, packed with shrimp and crab—and piping-hot. Kathy was delighted with them and with the pool of horseradish sauce, the heap of al dente vegetables and the crispy roasted potato pieces that came alongside.
Barbara's grilled shrimp and orzo ($19.95) was another unqualified success: Big, juicy, very spicy shrimp were served on a bed of nicely cooked orzo and accompanied by grilled vegetables. She polished it all off.
I was less happy with my penne Mediterranean ($16.35)—pasta with mushrooms, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, feta and pine nuts. It turned out to be bland and rather greasy, so I ended up picking out the vegetables and pine nuts and leaving most of the penne.
We finished up with three "dolchinos" picked from the sampler tray of intelligently portioned desserts ($2.95 each)—tiramisu, apple crostada and mascarpone cake. They were all fine; the last was our favorite.
We asked one another at the end of the evening: Would we return? Probably not. We'd really loved the breads and salad, but those weren't special enough for us to brave the mall traffic again. Of course, not being real meat-eaters, we couldn't try any of the large selection of steaks, which may be wonderful. Barbara did sample the sliced steak bruschetta. She found the beef to be good, but said the whole thing was off-puttingly sweet due to the drizzle and some caramelized onions.
"Besides," she concluded, "I had to park all the way over by Sears."