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Brio: Chain with a Brain

by James Verde

901 Haddonfield Road
Cherry Hill
(856) 910-8166
3.5 forks

Let’s call a spade a spade: Our region is a hot bed for chain restaurants. They breed and multiply like hamsters, line the highways like roadkill, and the majority of them are average at best. But once in a while comes a chain that surprises, pleasantly. A chain where the house-made bread is steaming warm, chewy and fresh; the servers are as competent as they are friendly; and the cooking, rather than two-for-one coupons or endless salad and breadsticks, is the reason to go back. A chain with brio, a chain named Brio.

Brio has restaurants in 20 states and two locations in our area: Cherry Hill, at Garden State Park, and at Marlton’s Promenade at Sagemore. I visited the former outpost for this review, a sprawling faux-Tuscan villa with a nifty indoor/outdoor canopied bar and patio. Inside, frosted glass lamps and wrought-iron chandeliers illuminate ceilings draped in fabric and supported by marble pillars. Sand and stone form the muted palette for the interlocking dining spaces, with pops of color coming from striped burgundy chairbacks and a profusion of green potted palms.

Gilt mirrors and prints of famous Italian works adorn the faux-finished walls. Brio is a lot of restaurant, and consequently wears a lot of make-up, but I can think of places more ostentatious and over-the-top. At least the place is wise enough to leave out the trellis of plastic grape vines. I settled in at the warm, wood bar, which was stoking a light happy hour crowd, for an Americano, which the bartender didn’t know how to make. He was more than willing to learn, though, and with sweet vermouth, Campari and club soda, he mixed a fine version of this fizzy, bittersweet libation.

The drink was nearly drained by the time I’d thoroughly perused Brio’s massive menus and settled on a few snacks from their list of $3.95 “Tuscan Tasters.” (Only available at the bar.) Corny name, good value, great flavor. Think ricotta-plumped ravioli crusted in Romano cheese arranged over tomato marinara alive with acid and sweet basil. Or a sloppy, spicy composition of shrimp and eggplant that was nonetheless delicious as the ingredients tangled in a brandied cream sauce. Served on a runway of slate, a cracker-thin pizzetta featured four cheeses webbing fresh sliced tomato and basil.

Moving to a table for the main courses, I started with risotto, which Brio managed to make correctly—you’d think that would be an easy accomplishment for an Italian restaurant, but many, many fail—and furnished the creamy rice with succulent strips of roasted dark-meat chicken and hunks of pancetta that suffused the dish with a wonderful, unusual smokiness. Soft cubed sweet potatoes, asparagus tips and toasted pine nuts rounded out the additions to the risotto, thickened with lots of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Chicken appeared again, grilled beneath a brick until flat and crispy. The method definitely imparts a lot of flavor, but also can dry out a cut as lean as a boneless breast. (Mashed potatoes were also dry.) You need the fat of a whole bird to really make this style work, but at least Brio’s version possessed the right taste, napped with a silky, sweet-tipped Marsala mushroom sauce.

Visually and flavor-wise, I loved the pop of green onions cutting through the richness of the fettuccine festooned with shrimp and lobster. Brio doesn’t kill you on the portion; one fairly hungry human could finish the tangle of al dente pasta in one sitting. Most places of Brio’s ilk send out two pounds of pasta, which might seem like a good value until (a) you can’t move after eating the whole thing or (b) half of it gets thrown away, either by the restaurant or by you after the doggy bag has been left in the corner of your fridge for a week. I like that Brio takes the preemptive strike, confident enough in their spicy lobster butter, quality pasta and nicely cooked seafood to guide diners to an earlier satiation.

Even the warm chocolate torte topped with vanilla gelato showed finesse. More bitter than sweet, I ate way more of it than intended. A chain with a brain? That’s Brio. Big-box-restaurant-loving friends and relatives, feel free to drag me here. I promise I’ll come quietly.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2 (May, 2012).
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