Very Little Italy
Neighborhood joints, whether bar or restaurant, have always been difficult to define in broad strokes. A few become notable culinary destinations with adept staff and stunning dishes. More operate on our lives as Robert Frost's mending wall. They set unnatural borders and bind locals with the dull safety of ritual.
Diners in this area have an uncanny willingness to accept dull ritual, to trade quality and service for the uncertain benefits of proximity, atmosphere and habit. In other words, locals happily settle for second-rate "comfort" food, even rave about it. This curious aspect of Dallas culture fuels crowds at substandard Tex-Mex places, for example, and stems in part from tensions built up between the real and what we wish to acknowledge. Sound a bit obscure? Compare margaritas at the population's favorite spot with those served at Agave Azul in Carrollton. Head to Deep Ellum for some Italian dishes, then hightail it up to Nicola's in Plano for the same stuff. Yet when residents of the M Streets or Lakewood speak of their homes and establishments, the word "character" usually finds its way into the conversation at some point. Turn their thoughts to the 'burbs or Mid-Cities, and these same folk complain of soulless strips of neon and chain restaurants.
Enter into this strange milieu Bravo Italia Café and Bar. Find it by rounding DFW International Airport, zooming past the blazing fields of Hooter's, Joe's Crab Shack, Outback and other confirmations of bland familiarity, past auto dealerships and public storage firms, to the very edge of--you guessed it--a soulless strip shopping center. The room, the vibe and the service mimics that of a quaint mom-and-pop neighborhood holdout. White tablecloths suggest elegance, until you notice the thin paper placemat set atop the linen. Curtains of burgundy and gold lend an intimate feel quickly broken by the casual outfits of other patrons. On a Saturday night visit several high school-age girls stopped in wearing what appeared to be pajama bottoms.
Hey, it's the Mid-Cities. Right?
Residents of communities north and west of Dallas know those trapped inside the loop will never understand the attraction. Chef David McMillan caused a mass eyebrow-raising when he abandoned Nana for the emptiness of Colleyville. Imagine, a big-name talent heading out to Olive Garden land. He calmly pointed out that households around his new restaurant, 62 Main, earn well over six figures on average. Leave Bravo Italia and head west into Colleyville and Hurst, and you'll pass glorious mansions set along a narrow, tree-lined road. It's almost like driving along Mockingbird in Highland Park. Just newer gaudiness, older trees and less traffic. Another thing: Scorn chain restaurants all you wish, they satisfy the needs of parents toting finicky kids and people crushed for time by work, soccer games and long commutes. While denizens of Dallas will happily queue up for iffy meals in rustic settings, these people value consistency more than quirkiness.
What else could explain the lackluster response to Grapevine's little Italian spot? We counted four others in the place on a Wednesday night and a modest group three evenings later, a Saturday.
Ambience can't be the reason for the relative quiet. One feels an instant sense of relaxation inside, and service reinforces the comforting feel. The owners move deftly between widely separated diners, showing discreet care for each guest's experience. Besides, patrons of many other establishments in Grapevine, Euless, Bedford or the like gaze out at a Washington Mutual and a sea of asphalt while digging into appetizers. Maybe price point is scaring people away. Let's see: With the exception of filet mignon, entrees top out at $14.95, and a decent bottle of Rodney Strong Chardonnay runs only $26.
No, Bravo Italia suffers from the bugaboo of inconsistency. Ravioli stuffed with a combination of ricotta and mozzarella wades in a lime-tinted pool of basil cream sauce. Sampled alone, the blend of butter, cream, garlic, Parmesan and (of course) basil jolts the palate with acrid, bitter notes. Scoop it up with ravioli and the unpleasant tones subside, re-emerging as a rich and herbal complement to the pasta. Compare this interesting and worthwhile dish with shrimp and avocado, an embarrassing bowl of funky shellfish in a slightly spiced cream sauce. It's an onslaught of mediocrity. Listed as crab claws on the menu, the small arthropod legs bulge with as much meat as skittering appendages carry. Garlic butter so decadent it quickly begins to separate saves crab flesh more fishy than sweet, as if frozen for an extended period. Tortellini is almost meaningless, in that the dull veal surrounded by sticky pasta fails to burst from a vaguely salty and tart cream sauce.
And those are just the appetizers.
One of the outstanding features of Bravo Italia's menu, besides appealing wine at reasonable prices, is its flexibility. The aforementioned tortellini and ravioli starters also appear in entrée form. You can add chicken, sausage or shrimp to basic pastas, such as fettucini Alfredo or capellini pomodoro. Classic presentations--piccata, marsala, parmigiana--come with veal or chicken. Rather pick at spinach than the mundane house salad? No problem.
The real problem becomes apparent when entrees arrive. No inconsistency here: Everything we tried disappointed. Veal piccata was uninspiring, the sort one expects to find at a chain restaurant. In its parmigiana form, fried young meat hides under a soggy and less-than-impressive crust and gooey mess resembling cheese. The homemade tomato sauce, on the other hand, was peppered with an array of herbs, including pepper, basil, garlic, rosemary and so much oregano it wrapped up the flavors to a clean, sharp finish. But Bravo Italia is clearly proud of its skill with a pan and some melted fat and liquids. Otherwise, a simple, unadorned fettucini Alfredo seemed commonplace, the cream sauce too subtle to boost average pasta. The first ingredient mentioned in shrimp scampi lacked the light, breezy essence of fresh shrimp and thus failed to balance stronger herbal notes.
Desserts proved consistent, if unsurprising. The ubiquitous crème brûlée was overly caramelized on one visit but held a quiet sweetness and superb consistency, while the tiramisu stood out more for a creamy texture than anything else.
Considering prices, though, it's difficult to expect more from the kitchen. There's nothing offensive and nothing spectacular, just lap after lap of middling creations. To aficionados of Italian-American classics (comfort fare, in other words), everything at this Grapevine neighborhood strip-mall joint will suit them just fine. People accustomed to gorging themselves at buffets will find portions here quite worthwhile. Servers bring out warmed garlic bread until you demonstrate the effects of gluttony, and salads prove ample.
Gourmands will aspire to something greater.
At this point our discussion of Frost's walls and location seems, once again, apropos. In the poem, nature and those open-minded few willing to explore beyond convention tear away at artificial impositions. Each spring, however, the author and his faceless neighbor "meet to walk the line/And set the wall between us once again/We keep the wall between us as we go." The constructions of humankind, whether physical or mental, serve to designate one from another. To many living inside LBJ, driving beyond the wall for any reason is mere folly. Nothing worthwhile, nothing unique exists in "Oklahoma." Still, if it were possible to resurrect Bravo Italia in Uptown or Deep Ellum and add a dash of character, insulated inside-the-loopers would flock to the place. Rave about it, in fact. They'd even feel pretty damn smug for doing so.
After all, Bravo Italia is not a chain. It's just a straightforward, unchallenging, functional Italian neighborhood space. And, like so many neighborhood faves in Dallas, it's not really all that interesting. 2030 Glade Road, Grapevine, 817-421-9998. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; open for dinner 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$
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