Food for Thought

Can Brio Tuscan Grille make waves in Houston's perfect storm of great Italian restaurants?

Can Brio Tuscan Grille make waves in Houston's perfect storm of great Italian restaurants?

Brio, restaurant, Kirby Drive
Brio changed the layout of the former Pesce location  to a wide-open Tuscan restaurant with different areas separated by arches and draping.  Photo by Jill Hunter
Brio, restaurant, Kirby Drive, lamb chops
Lamb chops are a Brio speciality Photo by Jill Hunter
Carrabba's, waiter, dining room
Within sight of the new Brio is the original Carrabba's Italian Grille. Photo by Shannon O'Hara/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
Giacomo's Restaurant, Exterior, June 2012
Among competitors in the Upper Kirby cooridor is Giacomo's. Photo by Karen Burd
News_Alto Pizzeria_pizza_with grilled chicken
Alto pizzaria is a hop, skip and jump away. Alto Pizzeria/Facebook
News_Tony's, interior
Tony Vallone’s eponymous swanky eatery just down the road in Greenway Plaza is the godfather of Italian food in Houston. Photo by Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
Brio, restaurant, Kirby Drive
Brio, restaurant, Kirby Drive, lamb chops
Carrabba's, waiter, dining room
Giacomo's Restaurant, Exterior, June 2012
News_Alto Pizzeria_pizza_with grilled chicken
News_Tony's, interior

Like so many foodies, I was sad when Pesce closed, even though, like so many, I really hadn’t been there in awhile.

But I was kinda skeptical when I heard that a national Italian chain, based in Ohio no less, Brio Tuscan Grille, was moving into the space in the Centre at River Oaks. Face it; the corner of Kirby Drive and West Alabama Street is smack dab in the middle of the perfect storm of great Italian eateries in Houston. It’s within minutes, if not spitting distance, from some of the finest pasta palaces in Houston, if not the country.

I will say that walking into Brio was kinda nice. They’ve changed the whole layout to a wide-open Tuscan restaurant with different areas separated by arches and draping. Not bad, not bad.

 There are more than 300 Italian restaurants in Houston, and most of the locally owned, chef-driven ones are inside the loop.  

But then the food started coming.

I watched my dining companion closely as she ate and repeated my question of whether or not this was a good location for Brio. (See paragraph two above.)

She (with slight eye roll): "Not everyone is a foodie."

Me: "Are you telling me you can’t taste the difference?"

She: "Is it the best Italian food I’ve ever had? No. Is it good and am I going to eat it all? Yes."

Me: "But wouldn’t you rather be at…"

She (curtly): "Not everyone can afford to eat at Tony’s."

Tony Vallone’s eponymous swanky eatery just down the road in Greenway Plaza is the godfather of Italian food in Houston, one of the oldest and surely the most elegant and service-oriented places to eat. Everyone, and I mean everyone should experience this bastion of fine dining at least once. Esquire Magazine food critic John Mariani has called it not only one of the best Italian restaurants in the county but one of the best restaurants period. And the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook recently restored it to its four-star status.

And sure, if you’re ordering the Osetra caviar service as an appetizer you are going to get a huge bill at the end of the meal. But on the other hand there’s always a three-course Greenway Express lunch for about 20 bucks. It’s a great way to sample the wonderful food and soak in the rarefied atmosphere. Most working folks could brown bag PB&J’s for a week and then splurge on that kinda lunch at least once a month.

 “This is a great location,” says Erica Gibson. “Opportunity came and this location fell into our hands. So why would we not snap it up?” 

And there are Marco Wiles’s restaurants. Zagat and USA Today recently named Da Marco one of the nation’s top Italian restaurants with a score of 29 out of 30. And their lunch menu is only slightly higher priced than Brio’s.

And I could go on. There are more than 300 Italian restaurants in Houston, and most of the locally owned, chef-driven ones are inside the loop. Swing a dead cat from the new Brio and you’ll hit Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino.

She: "People still don’t know about Giacomo’s."

Me: "Obviously they aren’t reading CultureMap."

She: "Sigh."

“It’s true, a lot of people still don’t know I’m here,” says chef/owner Lynette Hawkins who ran the famous fine-dining La Mora for years before taking a sabbatical and then opening Giacomo’s two-plus years ago. “And don’t forget that chef-driven, quality ingredient places are competing for about 10 percent of the dining population. The rest of the people eat at chains. They eat at Olive Gardens.”

But why if they can eat better for only slightly more money?

 “And don’t forget that chef-driven, quality ingredient places are competing for about 10 percent of the dining population. The rest of the people eat at chains. They eat at Olive Gardens.”

 Dining companion (becoming bored with the conversation): "Because they don’t know or they just don’t care. They’ve eaten at chains all their lives and that’s just what they are used to. That’s what they want. I know a lot of people with good jobs living right down the street at West Ave and I bet they will come here a lot."

If I lived at West Ave I’d just walk up stairs to celebrity chef Robert Del Grande’s Alto Pizzeria. Best pizzas I’ve had. Which is why I haven’t tried the pastas yet, can’t get past that triple meat pizza. And I have to drive there because I don’t live in West Ave.

I also have to drive, but not very far, to get to the romantic Antica Osteria in Rice Village, Arcodoro Ristorante Italiano and Vallone’s Ciao Bello in the Galleria area, oh let’s not forget Coppa Ristorante Italiano in the Heights and Wiles’s Dolce Vita on the Westheimer curve, which I hear is about to reopen after that fire.

Oh, and let’s not forget Carrabba’s Italian Grill. No, not the franchises around the country. I mean the one within sight of the new Brio. The original on Kirby that is still owned and operated by founder Johnny Carrabba. The one that’s about to move into a brand new building with a new, upscale Italian eatery by Carrabba right next door.

Someone commented that if Brio thought it was going to compete with Johnny Carrabba, they might think again. Carrabba, Mandola and, of course, Vallone, are names that have been around for years if not decades. Names that inspire fierce loyalty in Houstonians.

So, we’ll see what happens in the race for dining dollars in the hub of Houston Italian food.

I could be wrong to worry about Brio. I’m sure they didn’t make this expansion lightly, I’m sure they did the market research. And maybe the general manager has the right idea: A high tide floats all boats.

“This is a great location,” says Erica Gibson. “All the restaurants here are successful and there are a lot of young people moving here now. Opportunity came and this location fell into our hands. So why would we not snap it up?”

OK Brio, welcome to da ‘hood. And good luck.