Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Naples' Bravo! Cucina Italiana - Dining Amidst the Ruins

Bravo Cucina Italiana, "Bravo!" opened October 19 at the Naples’ Mercato. Bravo will be doing well for a long, long time. With popular sister restaurant Brio a few miles away, this, the 88th Bravo/Brio Restaurant is attractive and quite well thought out. One diner said “All the servers I’ve met are so friendly and outgoing. I just hope they can stay that way.” After talking with Manager Justin Schwartz and General Manager Christopher Prince, I’m confident guests and servers will remain happy. The Mercato is designed for foot traffic. Bravo’s broad front patio area is attractively conducive to walking, with curved grassy areas. There’s outdoor plush seats, and tables under broad umbrellas. Inside, one is quickly greeted, and escorted to the indoor/outdoor bar, or to the large central room, with white Corinthian columns supporting truncated trusses-this is “dining among the ruins”, Bravo style. The walls are golden brown stucco, faux finished, with Italian influenced artwork. Huge, 5 foot diameter hemispheric brown and white speckled Murano-styled glass ceiling fixures supply light, along with hidden high-hat fixtures Nicely placed greenery adds color and warmth. I made a beeline to the open, perhaps 60 foot long open kitchen, as waitstaff repeatedly cried “guest on the line.” The food is cooked to order. It’s a beautiful showpiece, a frenetic, controlled chaos, both where the chefs are, and where the servers and public briefly can mingle. This working kitchen is well worth a view. For everyone’s safety, have a quick look. Though billed as a “family” restaurant, it’s perfect for well behaved kids, couples and moderate sized adult parties. There’s a private room opening out on the patio. Its single table seats 10 or, better, 8.

Servers, men and women alike, have white long sleeve shirts and ties, with dark pants and aprons. Elegant. They are an unusually friendly bunch-this comes from management and filters down.
Our animated server is Michaele My table fell in love with her flowing dark hair and her attentiveness to details. Faced with refilling identical glasses-some with water, and one with soda water, she never had to ask, and correctly filled each glass.

The menu is balanced. Prices are very reasonable. Dinner starts at 4 pm for true early birds. There’s plenty of dishes to choose from. Appetizers include Fried calamari ($11), Fried Ravioli (10), Bruschetta with Mushrooms and Boursin (10), and three flatbreads. The Grilled Steak Flatbread tempts with wonderfully seasoned sliced tenderloin, grilled medium rare, served over arugula, caramelized onions, portobellos and Reggiano cheese. Highly recommended. The Caesar salad is fine for $4. I prefer the more sensual Insalata Rustica (6), with its contrasting tastes and textures. Romaine, arugula and radicchio are tossed with fresh pears, dried cherries, spicy pecans, tender grape tomatoes, and my favorite, the crunchy taste bursts of crispy pancetta. The balsamic vinaigrette is applied just right.

The other appetizer/salad star is the Wood-Grilled Salmon Salad (15). This is enough for two, or three meals for a light grazer. Crispy fried shoestring potatoes and a good portion of tender moist grilled salmon sit atop field greens, tomatoes, several grilled asparagus, and it is topped with feta cheese and balsamic vinaigrette Highly recommended.

The Pizza Napoli (12) is baked before your eyes, if you go back to the gas-fired oven. It is a classic thin crisp crust with a nice layer of Mozzarella di bufala, Provolone cheese, a light smear of tomato sauce, and finished with a bit of crushed red pepper and a basil leaf. The red pepper is the key; just enough to give some heat.

I am neutral on the Lobster & Shrimp Ravioli (19). Lobster has a delicate taste. It could cost almost double the price to have enough inside to really see and taste the lobster, whose taste is competing with the greater amount of pasta and sauce. That’s why I rarely order this dish. Bravo’s version, with ample raviolis covered with a nice tomato sherry cream sauce is as good as many other places’ versions.

The Rosemary Grilled Shrimp is a keeper at $19. Five large Gulf shrimp, marinated in rosemary and garlic then perfectly grilled, are perched on a warm bed of orzo, sautéed with spinach, Kalamata olives, onions and pine nuts, then drizzled with a warm caper vinaigrette. Recommended.

The Petit Filets and Grilled Shrimp (29) has two filets. Their quality is the equal of most steak house’s, nicely grilled and lightly charred, giving a rich aged taste. A skewered quartet of nicely grilled medium shrimp is accompanied by grilled fresh vegetables-tomatoes, broccoli, squash green beans and carrots. The tasty freshly mashed potatoes are a nicely chunky.It’s a filling meal. Recommended.

The Sautéed Crab Cakes (20) offers two crab cakes with some lumps and strands of crab meat and moist filler, served with a horseradish dressing and parsley flakes. Sides are crispy potatoes and roasted green beans with red bell pepper. If you expect Baltimore style crab cakes, this isn’t for you. It’s more on the moist side, without large lumps of crab dominating every bite. The price and good quality are in line with other spots’ crab cakes-I’m just a fan of big lumps of crab and scant filler. My type can cost almost double this. As this review is from Bravo’s first week; crab cakes and other things may be tweaked.

Already full, we shared the the Torta di Cioccolata (7) a dense chocolate cake with a warm chocolate center, topped with vanilla bean gelato. A beautifully served, delight. Highly recommended. Other dessert include Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding (6), Warm Berry Cake (6), Tiramisu (7), Cheesecake with Caramelized Sugar and Crème Anglaise (7), and Crème Brûlée (5).

Who’s s the competition? Mercato’s Italian Piola’s serves 60 pizzas in a more intimate bistro setting. Two Brothers Baci, ~ a mile north, with delicious New York Italian style, has a more casual atmosphere, and live entertainment. Each fits a different niche. Bravo! vs sister Brio? I prefer Bravo’s Mercato setting and ambiance over more crowded and noisy Waterside's Brio. Bravo’s prices seem to be less than Brio's.
The “Mercato Experience” is a powerful magnet, a siren's call to dine, a destination unto itself. One-stop parking for shopping, dining and a movie. 250+ seat Bravo’s real competition is the larger upscale Mercato restaurants- Capital Grill, McCormick and Schmick’s and AZN. Location and table availability among the Mercato restaurants, not finer points of cuisine, may be the determining selection factor in season, when the Mercato’s nine national restaurants fill up. Such a problem for restaurants to have!

We’ll be back. To walk around the Mercato’s shops, then lunch on the patio, is a must-do in fall and in “Season”. We like Bravo's friendly staff. We gave extra plates to a nearby server who cheerfully took them away, instead of saying “I’ll tell your server”. Little touches tell all. This is just the first week. Bravo! Cucina Italiana will be one of the more successful Mercato destinations.
#88, 9110 Strada Place, Naples, 514-0042.


peter said...

nice review, I may check this place out. thanks

Alto2 said...

We ate there last weekend. The food was mediocre. The portions were small, and we all left hungry. The service was quite good, until I requested the bill, which took 15 minutes to produce.

All in all ... eh. Not rushing to go back.

Mrs. Gastro Doc

Anonymous said...

Alto2....I work at Bravo! so take this as you want but the portions are definately NOT small...the lasagna is one of the biggest portions ive ever served and there is no way you left hungry if you ordered any of the pasta dishes....secondly you ate at the restaurant no later than 11 days after it open...cut the server a break its a tough system and it took a bit to learn. I promise you when you go back you will have quite a different experience.