Maggiano’s has outlets in more than 20 states. Brio, a smaller chain based in Columbus, Ohio, opened four locations this fall, including in Cleveland, St. Louis and West Palm Beach, Fla., to go with existing locations in Columbus, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and Orlando, Fla.
Maggiano’s sports red-and-white checkered tablecloths and dark wood paneling, while Brio employs subdued colors, white tablecloths covered with white butcher paper, a mirrored wall and soaring arches. Chest-high marble dividers separate two dining areas and the bar, where you can smoke and down a Venitian Bellini cocktail. And the kitchen opens up to the dining room, permitting a half dozen diners to eat at a counter within touching distance of the cooks.
The menu is divided among steaks — a Tuscan specialty — pasta, pizza, seafood and chicken.
On our visits, oak-roasted lamb chops ($19), grilled to perfection, were seasoned with tomatoes, scallions, red peppers and mushrooms, and were stacked in a deep dish atop asparagus spears and mashed potatoes, and topped with a marsala sauce. Though Miss Manners might not approve, devouring the four racks, or eight ribs, was easier with fingers instead of utensils.
Chicken under the brick ($15.75 dinner, $13 lunch) showed off Brio’s wood-fired oven. A grilled, seasoned breast is basted with a mushroom Marsala sauce and served with mashed potatoes and asparagus.
A standout among the pasta offerings is the shrimp and lobster garganelli ($17), the only pasta made on the premises. The labor-intensive folded pasta resembles penne but is filled with bites of shrimp and lobster and tossed with wild mushrooms, scallions and a spicy lobster butter sauce.
An oven-baked lasagna ($12.50, $11 at lunch) was layered with a thick ragu sauce inspired by the cooks of Bologna, that melded smoothly with creamy ricotta and mozzarella cheese.
A great starter is the bistecca insalata ($5, $4 lunch) — a wedge of old-fashioned iceberg lettuce topped with bacon, Gorgonzola, tomatoes and Parmesan dressing. A friend found the lettuce ordinary, but it was a welcome change from the arugula, escarole, endives and other designer greens. And this salad is easily large enough to share.
The crisp and chewy fried calamari appetizer ($8.50, $8) stood out with its sweet red peppers and a spicy marinara-mayo sauce. Brio’s also has a 12-and-under bambino’s menu ($5) that includes three kinds of pizza, three pastas or chicken fingers with fries, plus a soft drink.
Desserts include Mike’s Famous Cheesecake ($6), named for a chef at corporate headquarters. This is covered with caramelized sugar and crŠme anglaise; chocolate cake ($5.50) with warm center topped with vanilla bean gelato and chocolate syrup; tiramisu ($5.50), ladyfingers layered with coffee liqueur, mascarpone cheese and cocoa; crŠme brulee ($4.50), creamy custard with fresh vanilla bean and caramelized sugar, and gelato ($5) and sorbet ($4.50).
Our servers, included a young man from Chester who worked and traveled in Italy for a year after graduating from William and Mary—though admittedly he was more interested in chasing Italian women than culinary tips—and a young woman recently arrived from Boston. They were well-informed.
This is not a complaint, but neither our server nor the general manager could explain what I found to be a curious pricing policy. For example, the half-dozen steaks on the menu come with a salad. But with most other entrees a salad is an extra $4. This winds up making some of the lower-priced entrees, such as pork chops ($19) or salmon ($18), cost as much or more than a 14-ounce strip steak ($21) or an 8-ounce filet ($22.50). S
Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for The Washington Post in ’99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d’ and has a dining Web site, diningpro.com. He previously reviewed restaurants for Style in the late ’80s. He visits each restaurant twice and each visit is unannounced and paid for by Style.
Brio Tuscan Grille ($$$) Stony Point Fashion Park 272-2255 www.brioitalian.com Lunch and dinner Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
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