In Annapolis, Maryland’s new Towne Centre development (Really? Town with an e AND Center as Centre? WOW — that place must be REALLY posh!) they’ve opened up a Brio Tuscan Grille restaurant, a chain based out of Columbus, Ohio that claims eating within its walls is like an “Escape to Tuscany.” I’d have to agree, because the last time I was in Tuscany I had the misfortune of being led to some terrible tourist trap where I had the worst meal of my vacation. It was devastating to have your one meal in famous Tuscany ruined by your tour company, but on the bright side, now I can relive that crushing disappointment any time I want just by driving down the street.
Our local newspaper’s reviewers could eat out of a fly-infested dumpster and declare the experience “unique” and “protein-filled,” the other patrons “abuzz” with excitement – if they thought the dumpster’s owner might consider advertising – so I thought I’d type up a little unbiased review.
My husband Mike and I have gone to Brio maybe five or six times, because we love sitting on the open air patio when the weather is nice. They have some decent wine selections, which means we cleared the first barrier to entry for Mike. Nice. But finally, this weekend, we realized visiting Brio over and over is like going to a fast food joint thinking THIS is the time you’re not going to spend the rest of the day in the bathroom evacuating your bowels with the frightening speed only fryer grease can provide. You are setting yourself up for disappointment.
The first time we visited Brio, my husband had the lasagna. The portion was large enough to end hunger in Africa (though personally I would have used it to end hunger in America first, and then ordered a pasta dish, which I then could have used to end hunger in Africa). After eating for a while (and not making a dent) Mike asked me to try it, and though the sauce had a little zing to it, I had to admit for the most part it tasted like a frozen dinner from my childhood. I checked his plate for the little hockey puck brownie, which I remembered was the best part of that childhood meal, but they had stiffed him there. Bastards.
I asked the server if it was in fact frozen, and was told no, it was made fresh. Made fresh in Ohio and then shipped here frozen? Maybe. Or maybe I should be impressed by the kitchen skills that can create a frozen-tasting dish out of fresh ingredients? Paired with my own overcooked veal and a very average Caesar salad, we left largely disappointed. I felt a little like someone had promised me an upscale meal and then distracted me from the Olive Garden sign as we entered. But at the time the restaurant had only been open a few weeks, and we thought maybe they needed a little time to get their act together.
Following that first experience, we largely stuck to appetizers on following visits. The Calamari Fritto Misto was so bad we each ate one, then my husband had one more to confirm the horribleness of it, and then we were done. While the calamari itself wasn’t like a bunch of tough rubber bands, which was nice and surprising, the fried part of the concoction was utterly without flavor and too heavily battered. Here, I’ll give you the secret recipe: Take a steaming ring of calamari in one hand, and a spoonful of Gold Medal Flour in the other. Put them both in your mouth. Mmm. Nummy. Optional – throw in a spoonful of the nasty garlic aioli fandango sauce which smothered half the plate. Clearly they were thinking: fried, covered in mayonnaise… what could be bad?
The ginormous Bruschetta sampler arrived with two pieces each of four different flavors, drowned in a sticky sweet balsamic glaze that made them all basically taste the same whether you reached for the steak or the roasted red pepper. At least the bread was nice and crisp the first time. A second attempt during a later visit brought forth a soggy horror that turned me off it forever. It made me think how I used to throw bread to the ducks when I was little. I imagined my grandfather scooping my tossed bread back out of the bay, adorning it with some diced tomatoes and adding some buffalo mozzarella, and then serving it to me for lunch. Mangia!
When we asked the server if we should try the Crab and Shrimp Cakes, we were asked “Do you like Maryland crab cakes?” Of course we do! we said. “Then I wouldn’t get them,” he finished. Hm. I should know better. You don’t order a “Philly Steak Sandwich” in Georgia, and you don’t order crab cakes in Maryland when the chain you are eating at is based out of Ohio.
I turned to the server for help again. What about the Ravioli Caprese – Romano crusted ravioli topped with tomatoes, fresh Mozzarella and cilantro pesto drizzle? I felt like Dr. Lightman on Lie to Me as I detected his lip quickly curl and then relax again. Disdain. Never mind. We get it. Of course this is the same kid who eventually steered us towards the calamari, so maybe the Ravioli was the winner.
I’m a big fan of blue cheeses, so I thought I’d give the Gorgonzola Lamb Chops a whirl. They came out overcooked and one out of the four so badly charred that any attempt to pick it up by the bone turned it to charcoal dust. Tommy from Rescue Me must have been drunk when that one jumped in the fire. Starving after our inedible calamari, I managed to eat three of the little chops by pretending this was really my excellently prepared lamb from the night before that I lazily nuked for a quick snack the next day.
So I give up, Brio. The white flag is raised. I’ll sit on your porch and drink your wine. I’ll nibble from your bread basket. But I’m afraid when I’m done, I’ll get up… and go out to dinner.