Note: this story was published in the Dayton Daily News on Dec. 22, 1995 and was written by former food editor and restaurant critic Ann Heller.
SOUTH SUBURBAN HOT SPOT: CROWDS FILLING OVERSIZED BRAVO
By Ann Heller, Dayton Daily News restaurant critic
"PeetsZAAHHA" a voice calls out, sounding like some medieval street vendor hawking his wares.
It is repeated again and again throughout the night, this gentle reminder to waiters and waitresses that a pizza has just been taken from the wood-burning oven at Bravo! Italian Kitchen.
It is a soothing refrain, a welcome backdrop to the strident announcement of `Smith, party of four, your table is ready' that punctuates the air with equal regularity.
Both are part of the bustling atmosphere at the newest hot restaurant on the Ohio 725 strip south of Dayton. Cars that used to crowd other restaurant parking lots now are cruising for a space near Bravo! At lunchtime alone, the restaurant serves 450 to 500.
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This big restaurant, which once housed Tequila Willie's and later the Brown Derby, has never been this busy. This summer brothers Chris and Rick Doody, owners of the small Columbus-based chain, decided to open in the space and gutted the building.
Inside, the Italian Roman ruin motif relies on the crumbling-stucco-and-exposed-brick decor that's already overused halfway through this decade. Broken columns add a point of reference to Rome's Forum. Fake windows, high on the walls, create the illusion that diners are eating in a piazza surrounded by shuttered buildings.
Taken individually, these design elements may be overworked, but somehow it all comes together. Part of the success is the lighting, something too many restaurateurs overlook. And the open kitchens, where cooks work and fire the pizzas, provide nonstop theater. It is an active, busy place and that adds to the visual appeal.
The size of the place - it seats 280 easily - is its one major drawback. Waitresses have to cart the food what looks like half the length of a football field.
That may explain why some dishes came to our table decidedly less than hot. By the time a pizza was served, the juice exuding from the tomatoes had turned the pizza crust soggy.
And the triple-sauced ravioli appetizer, a pretty presentation with a grid of green pesto sauce and red marinara and a backdrop of alfredo sauce, arrived barely warm. As the stereotypical Italian mother says: Pasta doesn't wait. It must be served and eaten warm.
That said, there's enough to please the customers thronging the place with their kids in tow.
Start with the bread. As is the '90s rage, the bread is served with flavored olive oil for dipping. The bread is herbaceous and crusty; on the downside it's a little gummy inside.
The wood-grilled portobello mushroom, served perched on its stem like a big umbrella, is tender and moist. It doesn't need the rich aioli sauce - and could do without a pretty garnish of spinach that positively drips oil.
The restaurant suggests sharing a pizza as an appetizer, and I'd pick the pizza primavera. The crust is not crisp, but the grilled vegetables, mostly zucchini and yellow squash, add a smoky flavor. I'd like them by themselves - and the can-do waitress said we could have them if we asked.
One solid winner is the penne Mediterranean, which provides relief from cream-rich sauces. This mixes quill-shaped pasta with dried tomatoes, pine nuts, feta cheese and a gilding of olive oil.
The insalata mixta - a mixture of field greens that some people call mesclun, tossed with crisp bacon and Gorgonzola cheese - is a bold salad, and the balsamic vinaigrette was about as good as restaurant salad dressing gets.
It is a much better choice than the touted Caesar salad, which came overdressed in a mayonnaise-style dressing with no evidence of either Worcestershire sauce or anchovy to provide the requisite flavor. The chopped salad, a mixture of torn romaine, chopped vegetables and a mild vinaigrette, is a better choice.
On a second visit we moved beyond pasta and pizza to try one of the wood-grilled entrees on the higher-priced side of the menu. Grilled salmon ($13.95) was overcooked and not enhanced by an overdose of roasted peppers. Some people seem to love the Tuscan potatoes - really skin-on mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and cream. They're flavorful, but the texture is a bit pasty and visually the mound is an unappealing beige.
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When it`s time for dessert, leave the cappuccino to places that specialize it in. This one is weak and barely anointed with foam. Go for the good stuff, the creme brulee. Never mind that that dish is French - it's become as American as apple pie. At Bravo the burnt sugar topping is thicker than usual, making it more a peasant dish, but it provides a serious crackling counterpoint to the custard underneath.
THE BOTTOM LINE: South suburban Italian Kitchen deserves only a reserved bravo.