Restaurant Review: Brio Tuscan Grille

The interior is impressive enough to start the experience off right, with soaring ceilings over part of the dining room, a second-story loft area, expansive open kitchens in the back and soft lighting that accents the cream and earthtones of the generic "Tuscan" design scheme. The price for all the faux-finish painting and stucco wall textures that go along with that design, however, is conversation. When mostly full, the dining room is noisy and the bar likely violates noise pollution regulations.

That's a small problem, however, compared to the food. There's nothing trendier in mid-range chain dining these days than buzzwords like "Tuscan" and "grill" -- the former evoking Italian dressing commercials and bad rom-coms, the latter making it clear to dudes that it's not some fancy-schmancy place -- but let's give Brio credit for at least attempting to represent its name on the menu. Scanning down the massive array of appetizers and entrees, it's clear that a grill is very much in use back there, and that some of the dishes may have origins in central Italy.

The giant bruschetta sampler comes with five different toppings, running the gamut from grilled steak to classic tomato and basil, all of it tasty enough in that vaguely sweet, vaguely homogenized chain recipe way. Same with shrimp doused in a cream sauce atop slices of fried eggplant. The eggplant is beautiful, except when it is forced to endure the clutches of that featureless white sauce, which bears fat but no flavor. Lobster bisque suffers under the same curse, overloaded with cream and little else. Scallops, seared well but served almost cold, are the best of the starters, even if most of the stuff under the shellfish is better left on the plate.

What makes a restaurant take a perfectly good cut of meat -- in Brio's case, it could be lamb or New York strip -- then coat it in breadcrumbs and gorgonzola cheese? Inevitably, the flavor of the meat is beaten into submission by the pungent cheese, cowed by the strong flavors. Try to minimize that by decreasing the gorgonzola in the crust and it ends up chalky and gritty. Gorgonzola? Tasty. Lamb? Tasty, even when overcooked in Brio's kitchen. Together? No.

Surf and turf -- in Brio's case that means a shrimp and crab cake, and filet mignon -- is a better option, the meat left blessedly alone. The delicate shrimp and crab cake is suprisingly excellent, lightly bound by just enough filler and herbs to accent the shellfish.

Returning more to the "Tuscan" than "grill" side of the menu, however, turns out to be a bad choice. Brio's lasagna is almost hopeless. Let's be honest with ourselves, Brio: You don't make Bolognese by sauteeing some ground beef with sage and then putting it near a basic tomato sauce. Sure, that zingy tomato sauce is fine, but only when you can rescue some from the sea of white bechamel sauce that oozes across most of the plate, consuming everything in its inexorable path.

Braised beef tossed with fettucine is a much better dish, the pasta studded with pieces of tender pot roast. Dig past that slow-cooked meat, however, and you won't find much else of interest.

By the end of my Brio experience, I was uncomfortably full, my ears were ringing and I wasn't in the best mood for pre-Christmas consumerism. All I knew was that Brio might be getting a little coal in its stocking, courtesy of this jolly fat guy. Of course, they could probably just use the black nugget to power the grills, so I'll have to rely on symbolic lumps. Ho. Ho. Ho.

Brio Tuscan Grille

2 stars

2223 N. West Shore Blvd., Tampa, 813-877-3939 or

Some might say that the week of Christmas is not the right time to pick a mall restaurant for review. Humbug on them. It's the perfect opportunity to both see how a recently opened restaurant handles the convivial and commercial spirit of the season — as well as the crowds — and get in a little last-minute shopping.

Brio Tuscan Grill is the latest spot to open in International Plaza's crowded Bay Street restaurant district. Despite the prevalence of national chains like Brio, the mall has been able to assemble an impressive array of eateries, from the Renaissance Hotel's Pelagia Trattoria to Nordstrom's Cafe Bistro, not to mention Ocean Prime out in the property's hinterlands. Bay Street has its own high spots, anchored by the excellent Capital Grille.

Brio, however, likely won't appear on anyone's short list of International Plaza's best dining options.

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