Dining » Dining Lead

Phunk'd

Bricco lures you in with hipness, but sometimes the joke's on you.

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If you favor thin crusts, go for the pizza. - WALTER  NOVAK
If a certain smugness creeps into your Akron pals' voices when they talk about their downtown's nightlife, cut 'em some slack. Back in the '70s, after all, the industrially chic space that now houses Bricco was a dingy sheltered workshop. And across the street, the ultra-contemporary Fuel -- a newly opened wine, martini, and tapas lounge -- used to be The House of Paprikash and dished up a mighty burgoo.

So yeah, maybe the intersection of Main and Exchange isn't the Warehouse District yet -- after all, the traffic outside Bricco's windows is still more apt to include the Rockynol Retirement Community van than a stretch limo filled with dildo-toting bachelorettes -- but, at least as far as Summit County hot spots go, the 'hood is happenin'.

In fact, the view from our windowside table -- down Main Street toward the neon lights of Fuel, the Groove Shack, Jillian's, and Brubaker's Pub -- was one of the high points of our dinner visits to this "phunky pizza and pasta" spot; that, and the impressive international beer list, with more than 100 brews from 17 countries, at prices that are often considerably below what you'd pay at similarly cool Cleveland spots. Of note, a bottle of Lindeman's Framboise Lambic is pegged at $7 at Bricco, compared to $8.50 at Ohio City's Halite, and Killian's goes for $2.75 here, as opposed to $3.50 at the South Side in Tremont.

Grapeheads can get their groove on, too. Half the large, annotated wine list is devoted to Italian reds and whites, by the bottle and the glass; the other half is drawn from an international lineup of critically acclaimed wineries, many of which -- Liberty School, Giesen, and Bogle among them -- aren't anything you're likely to find at your local Giant Eagle. Here again, prices seemed plenty fair. For example, Caymus Vineyard's Conundrum (a classy white "meritage" blend that retails for around $27) is Bricco-priced at $38 -- not exactly dirt cheap, but still well below the typical 100 percent markup.

If the smart beer-and-wine selections and down-to-earth pricing seem to point toward the involvement of an industry insider, that would be former wine salesman and restaurateur David Glenny standing beside the giant blinking arrow. Glenny, 37, took over the space last September, after its former occupant, the cosmopolitan Treva, ended its five-year run.

Other than turning Treva's former carryout space into a handsome private dining room, Glenny hasn't tampered much with the physical layout. Old brick, high ceilings, and exposed ductwork still give the place the feel of a smart urban loft, and Treva's brightly colored, enigmatic mural, full of raspberries, martinis, and floating heads, still stretches across the rear wall. However, the dark wooden tables have been brightened up with white cloths, paper toppers, and tea lights plunked into colorful margarita glasses, lighting has been cranked up a notch or two, and a lively pop-music soundtrack pumps up the energy level.

Glenny has a long background in restaurant management, including a four-year stint at the Inn at Turner's Mill, in Hudson. So it's no surprise that his vision -- to create a casual, comfortable lunch, dinner, and late-night retreat, with a big selection of mostly moderately priced dishes -- is on the right track: Even on a frigid Saturday night, the place was hopping with couples, families, and students and faculty from the nearby University of Akron. After two dinner visits, though, we're afraid that Glenny still has some bases to run, if he wants Bricco to score as a reliable crowd-pleaser.

For starters, he should explain to his youthful servers the distinction between "friendly" and "presumptuous." This, after enduring our sturdy young waiter's propensity for flopping across the table to take our order, his habit of addressing a companion and me as "sweetheart" and "honey," and his reluctance to answer questions about a salmon entrée because, he said, he only ate battered fish from fast-food chains. And while a Saturday-night waitress initially seemed knowledgeable and not particularly intrusive, by the time dessert rolled around, she was addressing us as "you guys" and chiding us to clean our plates.

The more serious shortcoming, though, was the food, which often seemed monotonous and unimaginative. A Thursday night entrée of five grilled scallops on a massive mound of goat-cheese risotto, served in a shallow white bowl, was a case in point. If we do indeed eat first with our eyes, this white-on-white-on-white montage had no more pizzazz than a bowl full of porridge. Worse, the kitchen provided no crisp or crunchy counterpoint to the similarly soft, creamy textures of rice and scallops (again with that porridge image) resulting in a dish that was as tedious to eat as it was to contemplate. Certainly, for its $20 price tag, we groused, the kitchen, under the direction of executive chef Adam Smith (a graduate of the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute and former sous chef at the now-defunct Pucci's in the Valley), could have perked things up with some stir-fried red peppers, say, or a stack of green beans. But no: The sole garnish was an inedible, ungainly sprig of rosemary, sticking up out of the risotto like an awkward antenna.

Smoked-duck manicotti, while considerably more colorful, had similar problems. The three enchilada-like manicotti (one wrapped in a pale-pink sheet of roasted red-pepper pasta and two wrapped in green sheets of spinach pasta, both from Ohio City Pasta) were lined up in a pool of blushing, spicy Alfredo sauce, without even so much as a sprinkling of parsley or an oven-roasted tomato to mellow out the heady, repetitive tastes of smoke and fire. And that the duck, finely diced and mixed with ricotta, basil, and caramelized onion, had the color and consistency of Hormel Deviled Ham, only aggravated the monotony.

Although they sounded interesting, à la carte salads were also a letdown. It wasn't so bad that a spinach salad, garnished with goat cheese and red onion, was limp and wilted: That could be attributed to the warm pancetta vinaigrette that dressed it. Alas, there wasn't a similar excuse for the thoroughly fatigued mixed-greens salad, topped with red onion rings, a scattering of pecans, and two cherry tomatoes: Poor storage and handling, rather than the temperature of the white balsamic vinaigrette, seemed responsible for this flaccid collection of greens.

Either we made luckier choices, or the kitchen was just more juiced on the following Saturday night. We began with a large, thin-crusted pizza as a starter and enjoyed every bite, from the ample strips of buttery chicken to the sweet-and-spicy chipotle barbecue sauce, just hot enough to leave a warm glow on the tongue. A main course of tagliatelle, tossed with sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions in an herbed chicken broth, would have been better if the promised roasted tomatoes hadn't been MIA, but the dish still had character and substance. And a thick strip steak, done as ordered to medium rare and served with tender-crisp green beans, was succulent and beefy -- even if the promised "dusting" of powdered porcini mushrooms was nearly indistinguishable and the accompanying garlic-scented mashed potatoes had been whipped until gluey.

Even dessert -- a wedge of delicate, homemade cheesecake, divided into soft layers by a ribbon of caramelized apples and cranberries -- made a better showing this night and left us wishing our first visit had been as half as good. (On that occasion, dessert had been an individual chocolate molten cake, served with ice cream. In keeping with the rest of the meal, the cake turned out to be a dark little snowball, with a solid, overdone center that had us thinking more of concretions than of magma.)

Bricco deserves a nod for its hip, upbeat surroundings and well-stocked, well-priced beer and wine lists, but it's a good bet that its long-term survival will require something more: tighter, more dynamic food preps, in particular, and more professional service. But neither Glenny nor Smith is a novice. Once they get a handle on those issues -- and odds are that they will -- this place could rock.

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