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Restaurant Review: Brio Tuscan Grille energizes a moribund downtown space

The street-level restaurant space at Pratt and Light streets has lain vacant since a Legal Sea Foods pulled out more than four years ago.

That's a long time for an Inner Harbor space to sit empty, especially with Harbor East beckoning diners to its dense crop of glitzy restaurants. Now, the anchor spot at 100 E. Pratt St. is alive again.

Since opening there in early March, Brio, a chain based in Columbus, Ohio, has in short order managed to liven up its location more than its predecessor ever did. Brio has done more than just occupy a moribund space; it has energized it. The outdoor seating already has the solid look of something permanent, a space that's ready for company.

This feeling of readiness extends into Brio's handsomely furnished interior space, basically a large uninterrupted rectangle extending from the entry bar on one end to a wide-open kitchen on the other. Monotony is avoided with a variety of seating options — booths and free-standing tables — that have been smartly arranged on platforms rising from the Pratt Street windows. The result is an atmosphere that's uplifting without being clamorous and sophisticated but still accessible. Work cliques were dining here when we visited, but so were young families with bouncy toddlers.

Be happy that Brio has arrived, but approach it with caution. The food turns out to be not so wonderful.

The results range from above average, as with appetizers featuring bruschetta and calamari, and a cute "dolchino" dessert sampler, to the extremely middling, which covers most everything else. For the entrees, the disappointments come from all four quarters of the menu.

From the listing of a dozen pasta dishes, the pasta alla vodka makes a fine visual impression with an attractive tossing of fresh basil leaves and crispy pancetta, but the ricotta-stuffed shells have been cooked into mushiness. From the small "bistecca" listing, the artichoke-encrusted beef medallions are excessively salty, and their mushroom Marsala sauce has a corn-syrupy sweetness.

Brio's crab and shrimp cakes, one of 10 house specialties, are bland, and you have to work to find real seafood flavor among the filler. And from the menu's "grille" section, a grilled salmon fillet arrives with a layer of unsavory fat attached; the topping of shoestring potatoes is greasy.

There are bright spots in all this. Mixed in with the fully plated entrees are nicely handled roasted, simply seasoned green vegetables and potatoes. And it's not always clear if the problems are with conception or execution.

You wonder sometimes if Brio is cooking food to prevailing tastes. Soft pasta and sugary sauces are not universally abhorred. Likewise, there were aspects of the service that were problematic for me but may not be for everyone. I dislike having the salad course hurried to the table while appetizers are still being consumed, but that might be just what a rushed conventioneer or a restless family wants.

It might be better for Brio to let diners linger a little over its appetizers, since that's what it does best. The bruschetta quattro is a cute and effective sampling of Brio's four bruschetta options: two toasts each of buttery bread topped with things like roasted red pepper, fresh basil and Parmigiana-Reggiano or sliced steak with Gorgonzola dulce. The calamari fritto appetizer is a winner, too. Crispy, golden-fried pieces of squid are arranged between pretty pools of marinara and aioli in an oversized shallow bowl.

Brio also handles dessert well. It consists of everyday favorites like tiramisu, cheesecake with berry compote, milk-chocolate caramel cake and mocha panna cotta. Each of these is available condensed into the form of "dolchino" — a slice of cake smashed into a test-tubelike vessel — which can be ordered singly or as a sampler. Variations of this sampler are an industry trend for good reason — they're an effective crowd-pleaser.

There are times, really, when Brio's crowd-pleasing instincts pay off for everyone. The $2.95 bar menu, available during weekday happy hour, includes things like a shrimp cocktail, fried ravioli and a fantastic hamburger, quartered into a bite-size pieces. Other times, it comes across as straight-up pandering, as with the cocktail menu, which is overstuffed with super-fruity, and super-dated, concoctions like white-peach sangria and Razzbertinis.

It says a lot that we ended up with positive feelings about Brio. Mostly, we're glad it's there. Brio might not evolve into a dining destination for Baltimoreans, who know where to find better Italian food. But Brio should have no trouble quickly establishing itself as a favorite send-to for concierges and convention planners. The good-energy atmosphere absolutely makes up for some of the menu's failings. So does seeing a small corner of the Inner Harbor restored to vibrant health.

Give Brio credit, then, for strengthening the fabric of the city's primary tourist district and throw in some extra points for hiring a large, eager and diverse young front-of-house staff.

Energetic, confident and appealing — Brio is living up to its name.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Brio Tuscan Grille

Where: 100 E. Pratt St., Inner Harbor

Contact: 410-637-3440, brioitalian.com

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $10.95-$14.95; entrees, $12.95-$27.95

Food: ✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ ; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]

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