Let’s start this blog with a confession . . . My book club meets at Bravo Coastal Cuisine, so I eat there at least once a month. So, when I heard the new owners, FoodFirst Global Restaurants were changing the concept and menu to Bravo Italian Mediterranean, I couldn’t understand why. Hadn’t they heard that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? I liked the previous menu as it was, thank you very much.
So here I am, a couple of days after the new menu was introduced, swallowing my pride and admitting I was wrong. I recently dropped by Bravo (twice in four days) and tried out a number of the new dishes and couldn’t find fault in anything I tasted.
Maybe it’s because Bravo Italian Mediterranean has a secret weapon on their team, namely their culinary leader, Chef Johnny Imbriolo, a fifth-generation Italian chef who learned to cook beside his father, Genoa born culinary giant, Chef Angelo Imbriolo. Chef Angelo is kind of a big deal. Not only was he the favorite chef of President Kennedy and President Reagan, but he was the very first Italian chef to appear on television in New York City, where he made his acclaimed pesto sauce. His son, Chef “Johnny I” as he is known, has brought his family’s recipes to Bravo Italian Mediterranean, including dishes his father prepared for Kennedy’s inauguration celebration and those he prepared for President Reagan during his term in office throughout the 1980s. Am I impressed? Aren’t you?
The enlightened menu for Bravo Italian Mediterranean emphasis more plant-based foods and premium seafood, with fresh lemons, stone-pressed extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt. This was evident in my new “healthy addiction,” Bravo’s $3.99 plate of hand-picked Mediterranean Olives. OMG! After tasting one or two of these little green gems, I have come to realize that I have probably never tasted a truly fresh olive before! These babies clearly don’t come out of a jar or a can, instead, they’re young Castelvetrano olives from Sicily, one of Italy’s most ubiquitous snacks. They were perfection when paired with a nice Chardonnay and Bravo’s warm focaccia bread.
I was thrilled to see the Shrimp Napoli was still on the new menu, however, there are a few recipe changes worth noting. First off, Chef Angelo Landi, VP of Culinary Operations for FoodFirst, explained their shrimp is not treated with phosphates, which protects the texture of the shrimp while complying with their corporate motto: Good Food For The Planet. The batter on the shrimp is flash-fried, so the shrimp stays juicy while the breading is crisp and crunchy. Most importantly, most of the charred tomato sauce is on the bottom of the plate, allowing you to drag your shrimp through the sauce versus the sauce dripping down and ruining the perfect crunch of the fried shrimp. This is easily one of Bravo’s more popular appetizers.
One of the new stars on the appetizer menu is the Chicken Meatball Polenta. I truly enjoyed this dish which was not only filled with flavor but enough nuance to deserve my sincere recommendation. First to note is the chicken meatball itself. There are two 3-4 bite meatballs on the plate, well seasoned with spices including fennel seeds. The fennel is key to calling up that flavor memory we expect from a meatball. But what I found extraordinary is the rustic texture. Consisting of organic, free-range chicken breast that is ground in-house, the meatball has the consistency of pulled chicken vs ground chicken. One bite and you just know this isn’t processed meat . . . it is fresh, fresh, fresh! And that creamy polenta is surrounded in a tiny moat of extra virgin olive oil to keep it moist and delicious.
Additionally as impressive, if not more so, is the pesto topping the meatball. This is the same family recipe adored by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan, so if a Democrat and a Republican can agree that this is their favorite pesto, you know anything is possible. This is, as Mart described, a “bipartisan pesto!” I honestly can’t describe how precise and delicious it is, but I happy to say that Bravo offers jars of their pesto in their Italian Marketplace located in Bravo’s lobby. It’s that good! One of the keys, according to Chef Angelo, is not allowing the pesto to hit the frying pan, where the heat would break down the sauce. Keep that in mind if you buy a jar and make spaghetti pesto at home!
Bravo’s pesto is found on other dishes on the menu and takes a leading role in one of Bravo’s newest dishes, the Chicken Spiedini. Spiedini is the Italian word for skewer and is a traditional dish in Sicily. Tender, organic chicken is grilled on skewers and come with a side of Bravo’s string zucchini ribbons tossed in that amazing pesto. Grilled peppers, creamy hummus and pita points are included as well, but the string zucchini pesto truly steals the show on this dish, and trust me . . . it’s all about that pesto. When I told my server, Elizabeth that I thought the zucchini was the star of the dish, she politely said, “Well, I can’t describe the string zucchini pesto as anything but amazing.” That quote could pass a lie detector test!
Bravo Italian Mediterranesn’s menu provides the calorie counts on all their dishes, as well as an indication if it is a Light menu item (LT) or Gluten Free (GF). This is a nice touch that most any diet-conscious guest will appreciate. I also appreciate the many vegetarian dishes on the menu. For example, the Spaghetti and Meatballs offer a vegetarian meatball option that’s pretty outstanding. Made with button mushrooms, eggplant (with the skin remaining to act as a binder) celery, carrots and onions, the seasoning and mouthfeel of this plant-based meatball is pretty on point. In fact, when I asked Chef about the vegetarian options on the new menu, he provided one of each of Bravo’s meatball options for a taste test. While all were delightful, if I had to rank them in flavor alone, the veggie meatball was the most inspired. I could NOT stop eating it! If you do order the Spaghetti and Meatballs ask your server if you can do what I did and have one of each! All their meatballs are baked, instead of pan-fried, which helps them retain their shape and moisture content, which is doubly important with a veggie meatlessball!
When I had dinner at Bravo on Saturday, I attended with a few friends, so I wasn’t there to blog on what I’d had. That night I thoroughly enjoyed the Shrimp Fra Diavolo, even though I didn’t take a photo. Since I was “this close” to ordering the Shrimp and Lobster Fettuccine on Saturday, I made a point of ordering it when I went back on Tuesday. The Shrimp + Lobster Fettuccine is one of Bravo’s most popular new entrées, and there’s no wonder why. The dish features fresh fettuccine with an ever-so-light cream sauce that just kisses the shrimp and lobster, letting all their natural goodness of the shellfish take a starring role. Fresh grape tomatoes add a bite of acidic juiciness to the dish, while basil brings in that herbaceous flavor and scent I love. Even Chef Joe was excited about the plate he sent to my table!
It goes without saying the chefs at Bravo are focused on serving lighter fare without losing the Italian flavors we’ve come to expect in some of the higher calorie dishes . . . which leads me to Bravo’s Alfredo Frescos. Typically, Alfredo sauce can be a bit heavy, oftentimes even excessively thick. But not THIS Alfredo! Bravo proudly uses only the best cheeses, the freshest cream, and seasonal chef-crafted ingredients to deliver a flavor that is both exceptional and light. I tried the Primavera Alfredo, (another vegetarian dish) consisting of roasted red peppers, zucchini, caramelized onions and asparagus tossed in a truly light Alfredo sauce and served over fresh fettuccine. The Alfredo sauce was so delicate and flavorful, the folks at Bravo say you can feel good about eating it! I also appreciated the fresh sprig of thyme and the thinly sliced vegetable ribbons, as this made it easier to twirl both the pasta and the veggies on my fork before diving in. Yum!
If I was in Italy, I could have ordered the Tomato Caprese salad after my entree, but . . . to be honest, I’d had it earlier in the meal. It’s pretty hard to mess up a Caprese salad, but trust me . . . some restaurants manage to do it. At Bravo, their focus on stone pressed olive oil makes all the difference in their Tomato Caprese. Thrown in some fresh handpicked Florida tomatoes, and rich balsamic glaze, and I’m in heaven any day!
The grand finale of any meal is dessert, and Bravo Italian Meditteranean has buttoned that down as well. Mart convinced me to order the Caramel Mascarpone Cheesecake, which is made with mascarpone cheese and sits on a cream Anglaise with a caramel drizzle. Just for calorie’s sake, Chef tops it off with fresh whipped cream and another caramel drizzle. If you look up decadence in a dictionary, I’m pretty sure this dessert will be pictured. This is a dessert where I didn’t think about the calories, only the sumptuous flavor. Some calories are SO worth it!
Winding up two delightful evenings of fresh Italian flair, a few thoughts come to mind. First . . . I never once picked up the salt or pepper shaker, nor was I tempted. Second, the culinary staff’s focus on lighter fare is a focus spread across the menu . . . (except for that cheesecake!) We all know that handpicked ingredients are key to exceptional flavors and you can taste the difference on Bravo’s new menu, which allows those lighter sauces to shine. And finally, people everywhere are trying to eat healthier so I appreciate it when restaurants provide calorie counts for their menu items. This is a lot of additional effort, and Bravo’s culinary team should be commended for it.
I’ll also note that Bravo managed to dial up the decor during the week or so they closed to train the staff on the new menu. The vision for Bravo Italian Mediterranean’s decor was created by Brad Blum, CEO, and influenced by his many inspirational visits to Italy’s Amalfi Coast. His envisioned a warm and welcoming atmosphere reminiscent of a seaside villa along the Italian Mediterranean.
The resulting changes feature a clean white building with indoor and outdoor dining, azure sea-blue accents, comfortable seating and attractive décor accented with bowls of fresh lemons, vases of freshly-cut rosemary and bottles of imported extra virgin olive oil throughout. Overall, the decor feels crisp and refined.
Bravo Italian Mediterranean is open for lunch and dinner, seven days of the week and features a happy hour menu, as well as the Italian Marketplace in the lobby. And if you’re a fan of the cauliflower steak from the previous menu, there is a supplemental menu of fan favorites that Bravo is happy to make. Happy me!
The tastings I enjoyed at Bravo Italian Mediterranean were compliments of the restaurant. My opinions of those tastings are 100% my own, and not influenced by their gratuity.