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Brio Tuscan Grille

20 Paseo Drive, Rockville
240-221-2691, fax 240-221-2695
Cuisine: Italian
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Appetizers: $9.95-$14.95
Salads: $4.95-$14.95
Pasta: $12.95-$19.95
Entrees: $17.95-$27.95
Credit cards: Major cards
Accessible
www.brioitalian.com

Brio Tuscan Grille breezed into North Bethesda Market next to Whole Foods last month with an upscale, Italian-inspired menu of steaks, chops, seafood and pasta. Part of the Columbus, Ohio-based Brio Bravo Restaurant Group (BBRG), it joins area siblings in Tysons Corner, Annapolis and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Italian marble, handcrafted Venetian plaster walls and handsome chandeliers adorn the columned and colonnaded dining room. High ceilings and window walls accentuate a lively buzz in the 180-seat space. A 30-seat bar and lounge complete with sofas, a 25-seat private dining room, an informal sitting area with a fireplace and a 48-seat patio complete the picture.

The menu includes calorie counts (Montgomery County mandated). “It’s an eye-opener,” remarks a manager attending the pre-opening. Chief Operating Officer Brian O’Malley acknowledges because of that, they are looking into a little healthier style (and working on a gluten free menu).

Facing the open kitchen, Chef Chris Morris, a Brio veteran, vigilantly monitors dishes.

Starters are a strong suit. The bruschetta quattro holds munchies for many: focaccia topped with roasted red pepper and fresh mozzarella; roasted tomato and ricotta; sliced steak with gorgonzola dolce and sweet sausage, spinach, artichoke and provolone. Blackened shrimp stars with Romano-crusted eggplant. Fried ravioli, also Romano-crusted, takes a lovely caprese finish.

Chicken, chorizo and Parmigiano stuffed baby red bell peppers engage the tastebuds. Semolina-crusted peperoncini hide among the golden brown calamari fritto misto with mustard aioli and pomodoro sauce. The beef carpaccio platter, graced with mustard sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano, has “wow appeal,” says Morris. It is superlative and serves two to three as an appetizer.

Lobster bisque is a little peppery with a nice portion of lobster meat. An iceberg wedge, paired with Gorgonzola, Roma tomatoes, crisp bacon and creamy Parmesan dressing, shines in the bistecca insalata (that’s steakhouse salad not steak salad).

Al dente pastas are perennial pleasers. Penne Mediterranean is a vegetarian’s dream. The ubiquitous blackened shrimp dominate a dish of orzo with grilled asparagus, zucchini and tomatoes in lemony vinaigrette. Sweet potato and chicken risotto favors the sweet side.

Although vibrant seasoning generally abounds, grilled salmon and grilled Maryland rockfish, the fish of the day, bear a pallid citrus pesto sauce. Superb grilled vegetables, however, enliven the rockfish. Grilled crab and shrimp cakes with roasted onion, carrots, broccoli and potatoes are a calorie conscious choice.

Meats are memorable. The rack of lamb is outstanding (substituting Brio oven roasted potatoes for mashed makes it even better). Veal Milanese and veal Marsala are delicious classics served with campanelle Florentine (pasta trumpets with a homey tomato and spinach sauce). Brio’s sliced steak salad entrée is excellent. It ought to be — it’s General Manager Rick Dugan’s favorite. (If he looks familiar, he previously was GM at O’Donnell’s in Bethesda and Kentlands and Clyde’s of Chevy Chase). Like their veal relations, Chicken Milanese and Chicken “Under the Brick” (enjoying a mushroom Marsala sauce) fare well.

Portions, like the calorie counts, are plentiful (and can provide a second meal).

A tray of dolchinos in double shot glasses proffers tiramisu, N.Y. cheesecake, red velvet cake, carrot cake and chocolate caramel cake. The Brio trio brings butterscotch bread pudding, silky crème brulée and chocolate mascarpone cheesecake. Torta di cioccolata (molten chocolate cake) takes a dollop of vanilla gelato gilding the lily.

An array of California wines and imports range from $28 to $89 a bottle and $6.25-$12.95 a glass. Non-alcoholic strawberry-basil housemade lemonade is refreshing. Coffee is suitably strong but an iced tea proves weak.

Brio’s Bellini Brunch (Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) features fare like white chocolate-raspberry French toast, eggs Oscar and crab and shrimp crepes.

The Tuscan Taster menu, available in the bar only, Monday to Friday from 3 to 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close, may be the biggest bargain. Nine appetizers are $2.95 each.

Eager to please service is still a work in progress — but it’s still early.

Complementary valet parking (two hours at lunch, three at dinner), on-street meters plus a garage make Brio a hassle-free destination.