One Walden Galleria, Cheektowaga, NY 14225
Web: Bravo! Cucina Italiana
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Chains Cheektowaga Italian Pizza Salads
"Would we take family members from out of town to this place? Only if they care more about the way the restaurant looks than the quality of its food."
In a region that's completely packed with family-owned Italian restaurants, some people might laugh at the very thought that a quality Italian meal could be found at a shopping mall. But Bravo! Cucina Italiana, located inside the recently opened upscale dining and shopping wing of the Walden Galleria Mall, should by all means have impressed us: it's immediately next to The Cheesecake Factory, a well-known and well-liked national chain, and similarly gives off every sign of ambition to be something better than a strip mall mom-and-pop pizza shop. There are white tablecloths, a weather-friendly indoor patio seating area, nicely-dressed servers, and typical "you're helping pay our high rent" prices. Unfortunately, Bravo is no Buca di Beppo, and the meal we had there was merely passable for the price. We left thinking that we'd find ourselves better fed, for less, at an Olive Garden; make of that what you will.
The Story: In California, there are cities where chain restaurants seem to outnumber those owned by small businesses, and that's not always a bad thing; the rapid pace of construction and development of new population centers has demanded nearby dining, quickly. Consequently, Target Stores, Taco Bell/KFC/Pizza Hut locations, and certain banks seem to sprout as quickly there as the hydroseeded grass, whereas family-owned places or their facsimilies often take more time to settle in and set up shop. By contrast, chain restaurants are more challenged in Western New York; people here have been accustomed to aggressive local competition, smaller total checks, and very good indigenous food, yet the population isn't growing at a Californian pace. So while there are places where the family-style belly stuffer Buca di Beppo would have been the best and most reasonably priced Italian restaurant in town, that particular chain restaurant no longer exists here, and there are 30 different smaller venues willing to serve its former patrons for less.
So Bravo has an uphill battle ahead in its battle for local relevance, but it also has a natural advantage: the Walden Galleria's guaranteed foot traffic. The closest thing this mall had to an Italian restaurant before Bravo's arrival was a Sbarro in the food court, and given the established popularity of Italian food here, the number of potential patrons in the mall must be high. Yet the same thing that squeezed Buca is a factor for Bravo, as well: these people tend to expect a lot for their money, and Bravo is in the same wing with the wallet-busting Melting Pot and the pricey but consistently very good Cheesecake Factory. Does it have a prayer?
Highs: Our meal started off pretty well with a basket of toasted, garlic-infused foccacia, served gratis with a side of olive oil. Though the bread wasn't as delightful as what we've had at smaller Italian places, or even at the next door Cheesecake Factory for that matter, there was plenty of it, and our nice server offered more when the basket began to run dry. We also enjoyed an appetizer plate of Calamari Fritti ($10), or fried squid/calamari, which tasted pretty good and though pricey for an appetizer was served in a decent quantity. It wasn't memorable in any way, but it wasn't bad, either.
The dining room was loud thanks mostly to a medium-sized table filled with talkative people, but other parts of the restaurant were more sedate; also, though the decor had all the signs of quick, "made for mall" assembly, the restaurant was clean and fairly upscale.
Lows: Unfortunately, the meal went downhill after we received the calamari. A standard Caesar salad (Caesar Classico, $4) was sparse in quantity and utterly bland in flavor. The Eggplant Parmesan ($12), a "house specialty," was served about as unappealingly as we've ever had it outside of a frozen food container, nearly bereft of sauce and served alongside rubbery linguine noodles.
We also tried a Margherita Pizza ($10) to see how fresh Bravo's "fresh Mozzarella" and "fresh basil" really were. Loaded with sliced tomatoes that were fresh but not exactly bright red, the pizza had a solid complement of sliced basil strands and chunks of gooey white cheese. The taste? Surprise: nothing special. We'd take Great Northern Pizza Kitchen's version any day.
Dessert? We're cannoli fans, and tiramisu fans, and creme brulee fans, all of which were on the menu for $5 to $6 a piece. After a quick look at the dessert menu, we decided to skip them all - with Cheesecake Factory right across the way, we thought, why bother?
The Verdict: A week after our meal at Bravo, we re-discussed our experience, and one of us asked, "would we take family members from out of town to this place?" The response: "only if they care more about the way the restaurant looks than the quality of its food." That turned out to be a pretty good summary of our feelings - Western New York has tons of Italian restaurants to choose from, and since the only thing many of them are lacking is decor, the most notable thing about Bravo was that it looked modern and clean inside. We wouldn't return for the food, but if we needed a "safe" Italian place to visit after a movie at the mall, this mightn't be a bad pick. For obvious reasons, the line will certainly be shorter than the one next door at The Cheesecake Factory.