The assembly-line workers at Bravo! Cucina Italiana put out a high-quality product.

Doody Calls 

The assembly-line workers at Bravo! Cucina Italiana put out a high-quality product.

I think I saw a ghost in a restaurant the other day. It wasn't any ordinary ghost but rather the ghost of an American business mogul. It might have been Henry Ford, who mass-produced his namesake cars. Or maybe it was the spectre of Ray Kroc, who turned a California burger shack called McDonald's into an international empire. Or, hell, maybe it wasn't a ghost at all but the aura of a brilliant business concept at work. Because there is clearly a kind of genius to be seen in the day-to-day operation of Bravo! Cucina Italiana. After all, miracles alone wouldn't have been enough to turn an ugly, poorly positioned location at the back of Leawood's Town Center Plaza into one of the metro's busiest venues.

The Ohio-based company was started thirteen years ago by brothers Chris and Rick Doody, sons of legendary marketing guru Alton F. Doody. Alton Doody taught college before opening several successful retail consulting firms, writing two books (including a best seller about the Ford Motor Company) and investing in his sons' fast-growing restaurant chains. Their portfolio includes the seventeen Bravo! restaurants, ten Brio Tuscan Grilles, two Lindey's restaurants and one Bon Vie French Bistro.

Long before I stepped into Leawood's Bravo! -- in the former site of the ill-fated Bayou State Brewery -- I had heard plenty of chatter about the place. It was inexpensive, I was told, but the food was very good, the service polished, the setting attractive -- and the delay in getting a table outrageous. "The wait can be as long as ninety minutes on the weekend," says manager Larry Plaisance. He adds that the 7,400-square-foot restaurant has served as many as 650 meals on a busy weekend night, 300 on a weeknight.

That isn't a restaurant; it's a mess hall! Still, I wanted to see the venue that was causing such a commotion on restaurant-saturated 119th Street. After only seven months, the place is already such a success that the company plans to open a second Bravo! in the Northland's Zona Rosa Shopping Center and is reportedly eyeing a Plaza location for one of its fancier Brio Tuscan Grilles.

Not wanting to endure a prolonged wait in the bar area (or, worse, be forced to stroll next door and poke through Restoration Hardware), I made both of my forays to Bravo! during the early dinner hours. For the first visit, I brought along hardcore midtowners; more congenial Johnson County residents came along the second time. "But we're not typical suburban diners," cautioned my friend Marie, who lives on a heavily wooded plot in old Overland Park.

But what are typical suburban diners? The Applebee's crowd? The gluttons who pile their plates at Chinese buffets? Or the tastefully dressed sophisticates who dine leisurely (and expensively) at J. Gilbert's, Tatsu's and 40 Sardines? From what I could see, Bravo! lures them all: the good, the bad, the cheap and the ugly.

Happily, there's nothing unattractive about the dining room, where the remodeling job is complete with dramatic broken-plaster columns, "antique Venetian plaster" slathered over brick walls, oversized chandeliers, and an aproned army of pretty waiters and waitresses.

On my first visit, with midtown snobs Marilyn and Judy, we were attended by a Gwyneth Paltrow-issue blonde who whirled over to the table carting a green bottle filled with a blood-red sauce, which she gracefully poured into a white china dish. Then she left without an explanation and without having brought anything to dip in the stuff. Soon enough, though, she returned with a silvery wire basket heaped with thin-sliced focaccia and a list of ingredients. "Our dipping sauce is made with oil, thyme, rosemary, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. And we do offer it for sale," she said with such intensity that I wondered if she was waiting on us or rehearsing her lines.

The restaurant seats more than 200 people, and its daunting dimensions were a bit overwhelming to Marilyn, who quickly ordered a glass of wine. "I've seen train stations in Europe that were smaller than this," she said. Judy thought the décor bordered on the campy -- "ersatz Tuscan" she called it -- but fun. "There's a nice energy to the place," she said, admiring the linen tablecloths and napkins and the various appointments, including a single bottle of wine in the center of each table.

"Do customers ever steal the wine?" I asked the waitress. She shook her head. "Not since we replaced all the red wine with white," she said. "White is supposed to be chilled."

I suppose there's a weird logic to that. Dinner, however, made much more sense. A white, porcelain crock filled with Italian wedding soup was a surprisingly comforting broth, loaded with orzo, swirls of fresh spinach and clumps of ground meat (as opposed to the traditional tiny meatballs). The salads were decently dressed -- the Caesar actually had an anchovy bite, and the house salad came loaded with bits of crispy bacon. Better yet, the chopped salad was heaped with purple onion and black olives, a pleasant reminder of the deliciously oily, overdressed salads of my childhood.

Marilyn ordered the veal Marsala, which was so inexpensive that I predicted it would arrive as two leathery curls of pounded calf drenched in clumpy brown gravy. What she got, however, was almost shocking. We all cooed over the plump and juicy medallions lightly sautéed in an amber glaze of fragrant Marsala wine and mushrooms. The night's stellar selection, though, was Judy's Parmesan-coated sea bass, flaky and moist under a delicate crust, dripping with lobster butter and lolling on a mound of puffy, crisp potatoes and sautéed spinach.

Alas, I had taken Gwyneth's suggestion and ordered the restaurant's "signature pasta dish," a bowl of uninteresting penne and grilled chicken coated in a peppery-red cream sauce that was neither spicy nor rich. I took two bites and pushed it away.

I had a much better experience a few nights later, dining with Marie and her husband, Jim, along with my friend Bob. That night, an appetizer of the wood-fired Chicken Pesto Limone Flatbread was enough to feed four --its still-smoking crust was dotted with chunks of lemon-pesto chicken; sweet, caramelized onions; and bubbly, melted provolone.

When dinner arrived, Marie gasped at the size of her Lasagna Bolognese -- it weighed a pound and a half. She gamely ate her way through a third of the thick, cheesy pasta loaded with beef and sausage before surrendering and having the rest boxed up. Jim's grilled pork chops were succulent and meaty under a rosemary-scented puddle of herb butter, but I was less impressed with Bob's Pasta Woozie (named for one of the Doody wives, our waiter said), a bowl of linguini tossed in a bland Alfredo sauce with the now ubiquitous spinach and grilled chicken. Despite the fact that my own tortelloni florentine was also filled with spinach and cheese, the airy puffs swam in a fresh-tasting chunky pomodoro.

On my earlier visit, waitress Gwyneth had lied and insisted that all of the desserts were made in the restaurant's kitchen. But our more candid second waiter fessed up, admitting that only the crème brûlée was made in-house; the rest were shipped in from the company commissary in Ohio. That included the chocolate truffle cake, which didn't offer much in the way of truffle between its layers of cocoa-flavored pastry but was liberally frosted with remarkably fudgy icing. And we could have baked another cake with all the cocoa powder someone had shaken on the plate as a garnish.

As we were leaving, Marie -- who's always on the lookout for celebrities -- insisted that she saw Don Rickles at a table, eating dinner. Bob and Jim laughed at her, so I didn't dare mention seeing the spirit of some great American tycoon. Go wait in line and see for yourself.

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