Some restaurants transcend time and location, destined to linger in collective memory for decades after their passing. From the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’OOs, Basel’s, Robert Henry’s, Roomba and Ibiza, respectively, are still fondly remembered by longtime New Haven residents. Of all the eateries currently operating in the foodie Mecca that is West Hartford, the one destined to linger longest in memory is probably Restaurant Bricco, which chef-owner Billy Grant opened in 1996 at the tender age of 29.
Italian Restaurant Bricco is not Grant’s sole contribution to the Greater Hartford culinary landscape, however. Situated just around the corner in WeHa, Grants Restaurant & Bar, which opened in 2000, has tempted diners with a modern bistro ambiance, elevated American comfort food and spectacular dessert making, while Bricco Trattoria, which opened in Glastonbury in 2010 and has been a boon to the communities east of the Connecticut River, follows a blueprint similar to that of Restaurant Bricco.
Grants is ushering in an exciting new phase, eliminating lunch to concentrate on dinner and Sunday brunch, elevating Jason Cass to Manager, and installing Ashley Flagg, who has worked alongside chef Chris Eddy of Winvian in Morris and Jamie Bissonnette of Little Donkey and Toro in Boston, as chef de cuisine. Of Basque background, Flagg is a Grant protégé who interned at Grants while earning her degree from Lincoln Culinary Institute in Hartford. She will be overseeing a seasonal, chef-driven menu with more shareables, an expanded burger list and more steaks à la carte.
I’ve enjoyed wonderful meals at both younger restaurant siblings. But the Grant venture that tugs most at my heartstrings is the original Restaurant Bricco. It’s not just that Bricco provides great food and drink, attentive service and an attractive setting. A fair number of Nutmeg eateries pull off this trifecta. But it’s the added fourth intangible—an incredible, enveloping “feel good” ambiance—that puts it over the top. The gladness of being there is reflected in every ruddy countenance.
The youthful and energetic Grant is known to be one of the industry’s real “good guys,” whose humility, tirelessness and willingness to give of himself for worthy charitable causes is well documented. The opening chef of Max Amore in Glastonbury before leaving the Max Restaurant Group to seek his own path, Grant may be the public face of the Billy Grant Restaurant Group, but his brothers, Mike and Tony, are his business partners and should be acknowledged. Grant’s beaming daughters, Frankie and Brianna, make frequent appearances and are beloved by restaurant regulars, who have watched them grow up.
Grant also deserves plaudits for being unafraid to take creative risks. Bricco is not one of those restaurants whose menus, carefully constructed of items with scrupulously identified constituencies, change so rarely they might as well be laminated (or even chiseled in stone). Unwilling to rest on his laurels, Grant constantly adjusts his menu in response to the seasons, the availability of ingredients and his creative whims. In fact, Bricco’s menus are printed nightly. That’s not to say that some items aren’t so popular that they’re usually available. But there are always new and exciting items to try. For this review, I sampled a wide mix of old and new to give readers a full sense of the restaurant.
Complementary bright-green Castelvetrano olives treated with extra virgin olive oil, rosemary and orange peel made splendid nibbling while we explored the drinks menu, which we found had something for everyone. From Bricco’s beer list (drafts $6.25-$10, bottles $5.50-$7), we quaffed a pint of Sam Adams Oktoberfest ($8). From the mixed drinks ($11-$13), we sipped a Negroni ($13) and a Cosmo Bianco ($13). From the wine list ($9-$25, $33-$285), we accompanied our food with glasses of Meiomi Chardonnay, California ($12) and Rhiannon Red Blend, California ($9) and a bottle of 2014 Donnachiara Aglianico, Irpinia, Campania, Italy ($45).
We kicked the nibbling up a notch to noshing with an antipasto plate decked out with prosciutto, sweet sopressata, spicy sopressata, Truffle Pecorino, Parmesan and membrillo (quince paste) over which were teepeed giant sesame bread sticks. The fullest iteration of the antipasto plate ($18) includes arancini, fig-and-Gorgonzola crostini, prosciutto di Parma, coppa, eggplant caponata, roasted peppers and fresh Mozzarella. I know—twist your arm.
Other starters ($8-$12) were so plentiful and enticing that the indecisive could have found themselves in real trouble. A Melville cheese fritter ($12). Pork belly with watermelon salad ($12). Roasted Brussels sprouts ($10) with crispy mortadella in raisin vinaigrette. Lioni burrata Mozzarella ($11) with prosciutto and shishito peppers. Truffled risotto fritters ($8).
However, Grant’s most popular starter is probably his (Great) Aunt Josie’s meatballs ($12, five pictures above). It’s understandable. Light and lovely, our trio of meatballs was leavened with a little housemade focaccia (12), baptized with sugo Napolitano and christened with stracciatella Mozzarella and slivers of basil.
Grilled calamari ($12), actually cuttlefish, a cephalopod like octopus or squid prized in some Mediterranean countries, showcased slightly crunchy rings served atop roasted fingerling potato in a pepperonata vinaigrette.
Bricco also offers fried calamari ($12), which we didn’t try, and Portuguese octopus “carpaccio” ($12), which we did. The carpaccio was a pretty pale mosaic formed from thin coins of tender octopus in a green olive vinaigrette with a fairy dusting of smoked paprika.
Although we had majorly enjoyed our meat and seafood starters, vegetarian options also abound at Bricco. Toothsome grilled artichoke ($9) in a lovely lemon vinaigrette was finished with crushed hazelnuts, frisée and shaved Parmesan. The irresistible whipped ricotta ($9) consisted of a bowl of fluffy curds garnished with local honey, soft herbs and sea salt and served with grilled ciabatta.
Of Bricco’s seven listed salads ($8-$10), I had previously ordered and enjoyed the classic Boston Bibb ($9) with red onion, cucumber, sun-dried tomato, pine nuts and Gorgonzola in a lemon dressing. So now I tried the shaved Brussels sprouts salad ($9) with dried cranberries, toasted pumpkin seeds and grated Truffle Pecorino in a cider-based autumn vinaigrette, finding it just as beautifully balanced in freshness, flavor and texture.
On this visit, even our pizza and pasta choices also happened to be vegetarian. Nothing purposeful—good vegetarian options can be as tempting as meat and omnivores like us are trying to dine more mindfully these days. Bricco was offering 12 wood-fired, brick-oven pizzas ($14-$17) ranging from the relatively standard (margherita $15, wild mushroom $16, broccoli rabe and sweet sausage $17, pepperoni $17, grilled chicken $17) to the outright fanciful (smoked salmon and crème fraîche $14, fig Gorgonzola and prosciutto $17, and bianco with ricotta, goat cheese, red onion, pistachio & truffle honey $16). Actually listed as a starter, not a pizza, and closer to the fanciful end of the spectrum was our delightful grape & Mozzarella flatbread ($9) with green and purple grape halves, caramelized onions, rosemary and warm honey, sheer loveliness presented on a perfect elastic-yet-crunchy crust.
Bricco’s nine pasta dishes ($17-$24) could also have been said to range from the relatively standard (penne alla vodka $17, spaghetti carbonara $19 and rigatoni Bolognese $19) to the outright fanciful. Trust me, though, none of them tastes remotely standard, especially Grant’s always-dangerously-hot version of wood oven-baked rigatoni ($19) with Italian sausage, peas, plum tomatoes, cream and Mozzarella, which simply is unequaled in Connecticut. On the fanciful end are temptations like housemade short-rib agnolotti ($22) and squid ink cavatelli arrabiata ($24) with shrimp, squid, scungilli, ’nduja paste and green olive.
In between fall Grant’s fairly straightforward butternut squash ravioli ($18), which are a boon to vegetarians while elevating a fairly common pasta dish to heights rarely achieved. His version showcased eight square scallop-edged-but-round-pouched ravioli laved in sage brown butter sauce and sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and crumbled amaretto cookie, the plate streaked with fig vincotto. We couldn’t help thinking the ravioli would be a tough act to follow.
At most restaurants, not Bricco, whose ever-evolving menu of main course choices could provoke decision paralysis. Consider the entrées we didn’t get to try. Crusted Atlantic cod ($22) with tri-color quinoa, roasted-butternut-squash-and-apple purée and herb salad. Fennel-and-black-pepper-crusted tuna ($32) with green olive tapenade, potato cake and Italian mixed greens. Day boat scallops ($27) in a roasted tomato coulis with native corn and zucchini. Wood oven-roasted, free-range chicken ($22) in salsa verde with creamy heirloom polenta and roasted broccoli. CAB New York sirloin ($33) with glazed cipollini onions, braised broccoli rabe and potato purée.
But decisions had to be made. Classic chicken Milanese ($22) featured two generous, beautifully breaded paillards—crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside—in a lemon butter sauce served with Italian mixed greens and a grilled half lemon. One beauty was boxed up, destined to become dinner later for a spouse who couldn’t attend.
Tasty braised American lamb shank ($24), every bite unfailingly tender, was served in a pine-nut-caper-raisin salsa verde atop wonderfully textured heirloom polenta and leafy broccoli rabe. Everyone had to have a taste.
The Flintstonian pan-roasted, bone-in, veal rib chop ($45) was large enough to defend oneself with. Its telltale bone Frenched, the thick chop was served over roasted fingerling potatoes and spinach in a wild mushroom-Marsala sauce that would do the best Italian chef proud. Which, of course, is what Grant arguably is in these parts.
As for my mustard BBQ cedar-planked organic salmon ($27), it’s such a classic that it rarely, if ever, leaves the menu, and I deserve no points for adventurousness in choosing it. But after years of singing this dish’s praises, I cannot imagine a trip to Bricco without getting a taste of it. Plated with Arethusa green beans with melted leek and a swirl of puréed potatoes, my thick rectangle of Black Pearl organic salmon was cooked to medium temperature, as requested, each big silky moist flake of pink flesh flavored with the glorious grainy mustard glaze.
I could end any meal on that incredible note, even a Last Supper, but Bricco’s desserts ($6-$9), prepared at neighboring Grants and offered with an array of Italian dessert wines ($7-$8), Cognacs ($9-$21), single malt Scotches ($10-$28), ports ($9-$18) and Grappas ($11), are pretty fabulous in their own right. Bricco’s hot fudge sundae ($8) refined the ice cream parlor classic with housemade vanilla bean ice cream, hot fudge, real whipped cream (what a concept) and a chocolate chip biscotto.
The terrific butterscotch pudding ($9) came in a small, lidless Mason jar with salted caramel sauce, crumbled shortbread cookie, real whipped cream, chocolate pearls and white chocolate shavings. Jell-O pudding pops never tasted like this, God rest Bill Cosby’s tortured soul.
Lightly sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar, the boat-shaped, piping hot, apple crisp ($8) was finished with a traditional rolled oat topping and vanilla bean ice cream. And finally, a slice of moist, rich and not overly sweet Valrhona fallen chocolate “soufflé” cake ($9) was served in pistachio crème anglaise with pistachio ice cream.
What a meal! What a trio of eateries! Restaurant Bricco, like its founder, just never seems to get old.
Restaurant Bricco, 78 LaSalle Road, West Hartford; 860-233-0220; billygrant.com/bricco