With Macbeth at the Hanna, A Chorus Line at the Palace and Robert Dubac's Male Intellect playing at the 14th Street Theatre, PlayhouseSquare was positively jumping on a recent Friday night. And it appeared that everybody was having their pre-show supper at Bricco.
Most restaurants look better full than empty. Many function better too. That seems to be the case at this eight-month-old Theater District bistro, an offshoot of a popular Akron spot of the same name. During a previous off-season visit, the cavernous dining room felt hollow and bland, like the banquet hall of a two-star hotel. And despite a near-empty house, service was sluggish and slovenly.
Contrast that with our most recent experience: Thanks in no small part to a packed house, the snazzy restaurant buzzed with excitement. Sharp-dressed men and women occupied every stool, booth, seat and table, including those in the bar and attached lounge. Working in perfect concert, the cast of hosts, bartenders, servers and kitchen crew succeeded in getting the customers fed and into their theater seats long before the lights went down.
If one were to rank in order of importance the qualities of a winning "theater restaurant," I think we'd agree that efficiency trumps quality. Regardless of how good the food might be, diners simply will not return if they can't make it to the show on time. The flip side of that is that diners will tolerate quite a bit if the restaurant manages to get everything else right. Fortunately for Bricco, it appears to be doing everything else right.
For each slight gaffe we suffer there is a positive counter to balance it. Who cares if our server neglects to send over bread - we can valet our car for $6 and pick it up after the show. Would the fried dill pickles ($5) have been more enjoyable if sliced thinner? We think so, but check out that amazing view of the Ohio and Allen theatres. Did too many watery toppings sink our spinach, feta and roasted tomato pizza ($10)? Damn near, but our server invited us to leave our leftovers for safekeeping until post-curtain.
Far and away, Bricco's most appealing quality is its affordability. A couple easily could enjoy a pair of big salads and a pizza for around $20, excluding tax and tip. Portions are robust, dishes are straightforward and, by and large, the food is immensely satisfying.
While those pickles left us dilly, we applaud an order of sausage, chorizo and rice stuffed peppers ($7). Nestled into a bright marinara base, the kicky Anaheim peppers are plump, earthy and filling. Methinks it was the spinach that waterlogged our previous pizza. But our blackened chicken, red onion and barbecue sauce pie ($12) suffers no such fate during our latest performance. Though still a little heavy-handed with the toppings, the kitchen appears to have produced a smash.
Bricco's sizeable menu looks daunting at first glance, especially considering one's limited decision-making time. There are nearly a dozen each of appetizers, pizzas, pastas and entreés. But the closer you examine the playbill, the more redundancies start leaping off the page. Chorizo stars not only in those stuffed peppers, but also in two other apps, three pizzas and a couple pastas. Crab cakes are listed as both an appetizer and an entrée. Feta, spinach, mozzarella, caramelized onions and shrimp make multiple cameos.
Pasta fans should have few qualms about the penne ($14) tossed with Italian sausage, banana peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and pesto cream sauce. Hearty, pleasantly spiced and over-the-top rich, the dish is an autumn charmer. Risotto fans, however, likely will take issue with the apple-bacon version that sides the scallop and shrimp entrée ($22). The flavor is bland and the texture unyielding. Too bad about those big, sweet scallops and jumbo grilled shrimp, which are tainted by a butter sauce that tastes of industrial margarine.
Look no further than the veal parmesan ($14) to illustrate Bricco's munificent value structure. This agreeable belly buster is loaded with two seasoned, breaded and cheese-capped flanks of veal and a mountain of al dente linguini marinara.
There are other things we really like about Bricco: The fact that we can order a post-show supper as late as midnight during the week and 1 a.m. on the weekend is pretty cool. Bricco's vast beer, wine and martini list is impressive for any restaurant, theater or otherwise. And on Sunday and Monday nights, the restaurant sells all of its wine at retail prices, making a bottle of, say, Silver Oak Napa cab $80, instead of a car payment. Bravo.
Bricco -- 1438 Euclid Ave.; 216-862-2889; Hours: 11 a.m. - Midnight Monday - Thursday; 11 a.m. - 1 a.m. Friday - Saturday; 3-10 p.m. Sunday.