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Published: Thursday, 11/5/2009

Restaurant review: Bravo! Cucina Italiana *****

Eating my way through northern Italy last spring piqued my curiosity. Could I find anything comparable to the real deal back home?

Most places make Italian food as we imagine it: tomato and sticky white sauces, pasta, and cheese in a variety of squishy combinations. Bravo! Cucina Italiana at Westfield Franklin Park, rates higher on the authenticity scale. Offering a fine-dining experience without an exorbitant bill, it is a good value.

The decor - tall columns, exposed brick, dramatic light fixtures - creates a classy ambiance, and the service was terrific.

Eggplant parmesan was listed as a meal, but my companions and I asked for it as an appetizer. Hot and crispy, the autumn vegetable was thinly sliced, lightly breaded, and topped with marinara and provolone.

We liked the bread dip so much (olive oil with rosemary, basil, thyme, salt, and blushed with sun-dried tomatoes) that we inquired about taking some home, and the kitchen filled and corked a bottle ($13).

I ordered the rosemary grilled shrimp ($17.99) on a saute of tender orzo, spinach, Kalamata olives, onions, pine nuts, and a spicy caper vinaigrette. I was so enthused about the first six ingredients, I overlooked a deal-breaker in the seventh: spicy. The beautiful presentation was too lively for my tongue so I asked that it be adjusted, thinking of a rinse and a run around a buttery skillet. But soon, a fresh plate of five shrimp, minus the punch, was delivered. Mmmm. Moments later, a kindly manager inquired about my satisfaction.

One of us said he was on a diet and the server suggested half-portions; we ordered two, entirely adequate for most mortals.

The wood-grilled salmon salad ($9.99 half, $11.99 full portion) was nicely done, with a mix of greens, tomato,

feta, and grilled asparagus. Balsamic vinaigrettes are a big deal in Italy, and this was very good.

Wood-fired chicken marsala had a scrumptious mushroom-wine sauce, roasted green beans, and delectable Tuscan mashed potatoes with a hint of garlic. ($9.99/$11.99).

We mentioned we were celebrating a birthday, and at meal's end, our server gifted the celebrant with a tall glass of gelato (denser, with less butterfat than American ice cream).

At a dinner, we loved the crispy shrimp Napoli ($9.99), barely battered and fried with a lemon butter and tomato sauce that had us asking for more.

Butternut squash soup ($2.99) was wonderfully rich.

A coworker had raved, rightly so, about sauteed crab cakes ($19.59) with a light horseradish dressing. Crispy potatoes were scrumptious, and the server swapped out roasted green beans for lightly steamed asparagus.

Lobster and bay scallop risotto ($17.99) was a bowl of creamy rice with plenty of seafood, tomato chunks, and a bit of basil, delicious but a tad oily and bland. But this is a place that would readily send out a garnish of chopped green onions or garlic had we desired.

Save room for desserts: they're gorgeous and of sharing proportion.

Black raspberry sorbetto ($4.99) is smooth and light. Tre dolce ($8.99) is a smaller portion of Bravo's three most popular sweets: tiramisu, chocolate chip bread pudding (my fave), and torta di cioccolata, the latter two crowned with vanilla gelato.

Bravo must love children as much as the Italians do. It offers interesting menus for bambinos as well as older kids.

Despite Bravo's size, it's not terribly noisy. It helps that tables (white cloths topped with white paper) are decently spaced and piped music is soft.

Delizioso!

Contact Bill of Fare at: fare@theblade.com



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