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Monday, April 17, 2000

Tuscan talent

Posted on Mon, Apr 17, 2000 at 4:00 AM

Despite the trendy, well-heeled crowds lined up at the door, and despite the lightweight name that sounds like it was pulled from a starlet's bio, there is some substance to Brio, the new, upscale Tuscan grill at Winter Park Village.

We arrived without reservations on a busy weekend evening, and it was immediately clear we were in for a long wait. Throngs of people milled around. The hostess gave us a palm pager so we could window shop in the immediate area to kill time. It was either that or jockey for a place at the bar, where the members of the salon set were squeezed in so tight that we would have been lucky to find something to lean on, much less sit down.

The inside of the restaurant is spacious and bustling, with a curved layout that wraps around the show kitchen. The dining area is reinforced by pillars and softened by faux antique treatments, and the acoustics are comfortably noisy.

There were some lapses in service, but our waitress seemed to be doing her best to keep up with the fast pace. Although we waited far too long for appetizers and a bread basket, they were in peak form when they showed up. The crusty Italian rolls had been whisked to our table straight from the oven, still steaming. And the "antipasto sampler" ($12.95) was delicious across the board. We loved the "calamari fritto misto," lightly fried and accented with "pepperoncini," as well as the "Brio bruschetta" topped with marinated tomatoes, seared peppers and mozzarella. The mushroom "ravioli al forno" had an exquisite, creamy sauce.

Don't overlook the flatbread pizzas. Toasted in a wood-fired oven, they have crisp, thin crusts that are balanced by light toppings. The wild-mushroom version ($9.95) was slightly moistened with truffle oil and topped with mild, nutty fontina cheese and a few caramelized onions.

Brio does an able job with pastas such as lasagna with Bolognese meat sauce, but it would be a shame to miss out on wood-grilled steaks, chops and seafood, which are what the kitchen does best. A 14-ounce strip steak ($21.95) was particularly juicy and buttery, and topped with melted gorgonzola. But on the side, the wispy "onion straws" didn't work – they were eclipsed by their overly oily fried batter.

Wood-grilled salmon ($21.95) was an exercise in restraint: The firm, pink, succulent flesh of the fish was jazzed with a delicate citrus pesto and accompanied by tomatoes encrusted with Romano cheese.

The restaurant's next-door Tuscan Bakery is worth a visit on the way out, if only to glimpse the gorgeous profusion of breads and pastries. Brio's stylish atmosphere and well-executed menu make it a successful choice whether for lunch, dinner or the popular "Bellini brunch" on Saturdays and Sundays.


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