The aroma is the first thing you notice at Bravo Cucina Italiana, which opened this August in Village Pointe.
The scents of garlic, basil, baked bread and cheese waft from the restaurant's open kitchen and through the large dining room.
The second thing you notice is Bravo's popularity.
On the lunch hour, shoppers — especially females — pack the place. It's busy through a daily happy hour and deep into dinner.
Combine the newness of the restaurant with drink specials, two happy hours and really good food, and the popularity makes sense. Getting into Bravo on the weekend could be a long-term issue.
On our first Friday night visit, we left when we learned it was at least a 90-minute wait. We went back on a Wednesday night with a reservation and got right in. As luck would have it, it was martini night. About a dozen drinks are $5.
My wife had the Razzberritini, made with raspberry vodka, raspberry schnapps, lime juice and sweet and sour. She liked it, and said it tasted similar to Fruity Pebbles cereal.
Moments after we sat down, bread arrived.
Served warm with four pieces all baked together, it reminded me of soft cheese bread sticks without the cheese. It's served with an oil and Italian dressing dip that was similar to a light salad dressing. We got extra bread to finish the dip on each visit.
Most of the appetizers are traditional Italian dishes with a twist. The crispy mozzarella ravioli, $9.99, is a good example. A combination of homemade ricotta and mozzarella cheese are inside a fried half-moon of dough that just melts in your mouth. Served with sides of fresh tomato marinara and a creamy horseradish and basil sauce, the ravioli didn't last long. I am still surprised at how much cheese they get inside the ravioli without it being chewy.
The crispy shrimp Napoli appetizer, $11.99, features hand-battered and flash-fried large shrimp served with green onions in a lemon butter and charred tomato sauce made daily at Bravo. The Napoli sauce hits you in waves, first the lemon butter and what tasted like a hint of basil and then an almost chipotle-type flavor from the charred tomatoes.
My wife and I have taken a couple of trips to Baltimore, and we are always drawn to the crab cakes. So when I saw the menu item for the sautéed crab and shrimp cakes entree, $20.49, I had to try them.
A combination of lump crabmeat and shrimp appeared to be lightly covered with lemon butter and sautéed on both sides, then finished in the oven.
The horseradish and basil sauce was drizzled over the four golfball-size cakes, which came with crispy potatoes and mixed veggies.
The crabmeat dominated the flavor in the cakes, followed by the lemon and garlic and a hint of onion.
The potatoes were simple but out of this world. Red potatoes were baked, broken into small pieces, fried and then tossed in rosemary, garlic and salt and pepper. I would change the name to “perfect potatoes.”
Service was outstanding on both visits. Servers promptly refilled our drinks and constantly replaced appetizer and bread plates without us really even noticing.
Kris ordered one of the house specialties, the shrimp fra diavolo campanelle, $16.49. Bell-shaped pasta is tossed in a spicy tomato cream sauce with sautéed shrimp or chicken. Kris couldn't finish the large portion. There is little bit of a kick when you first start eating it, but I would say it's not too spicy for the average palate.
Don't be surprised at the size of the pasta in the sausage tortellini, $15.49. The jumbo pasta is tossed with pieces of sweet Italian sausage and pancetta. The tomato gravy is homemade with tomatoes, garlic and crushed red pepper. Fresh mozzarella and basil finish the dish. The first few bites of sauce and sausage are good, and as you cut up the tortellini, the cheese inside mixes with the rest of the plate and is a nice combination.
Many of the prices on the dinner menu were three or four dollars more than I would expect, but after seeing these dishes I realized they are sized for sharing or leftovers.
The restaurant's wide-open dining room has dozens of tables flanked by booths on the south side and a full-service bar facing a wall of big screen TVs on the north.
An open kitchen lets diners see all the action, and there are more seats in front of the busy pizza oven. The decor is similar to that of other Italian chain restaurants, especially in the large light fixtures and the exposed brick painted in some spots.
On a second visit, we tried the $10.99 calamari fritta and didn't like it as much as the other two appetizers we had. The pieces of squid were small and the marinara didn't have the chunks of tomato it had the first time. The batter on the calamari was a little heavy for our liking. It was the only dish on our two trips that didn't live up to our expectations.
The pecan-crusted tilapia salad was my wife's favorite dish. It included fresh greens in a balsamic vinaigrette with red onions, fresh strawberries, creamy boursin cheese and pepper-dusted pecans. Each bite was a combination of sweet and spicy. The lightly battered tilapia was covered in a seasoned mixture of flour, pecans, garlic, salt and pepper.
My wife was surprised how fresh the strawberries tasted. The restaurant's manager, Chris Hardy, said Bravo gets almost all of its produce and ingredients from local suppliers.
I had the meatball and pepperoni manicotti. Homemade meatballs and spicy pepperoni are mixed together and rolled with homemade ricotta in two large manicotti shells, topped with a red pepper cream sauce and baked.
If you like it cheesy and spicy, this is the dish for you. There was enough to take home and eat again.
Kris also ordered the Margherita pizza, topped with sliced roma tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil. The crust was thin and crispy, and it had the taste of being cooked close to a wood fire. The dough is a slow-rising mix that is made fresh throughout the week, Hardy said.
Bravo's dessert menu is constantly changing, but one of the regulars is the seasonal crostada, $6.95. It was served like a small two-person apple pie, topped with vanilla bean gelato and caramel sauce. During the summer months, Hardy said, the crostada is filled with mixed berries. It had a light, flaky crust and disappeared quickly.
I liked the Ghirardelli chocolate cake more than the crostada. The cake is made special for Bravo but not made fresh at the restaurant. Layers of mousse, custard and chocolate cake are coated with Ghirardelli chocolate frosting and chocolate chips.
The atmosphere at Bravo isn't different from many other Italian chains. But the food is, and that's what's making the restaurant a west Omaha hot spot, and probably will make it one for months to come.
Mike'l Severe is the co-host of “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,” a sports talk show on 1620 The Zone Radio, weekdays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. He grew up in New Orleans, spending most of his childhood in his grandmother's kitchen. He first learned to cook from his father, Henry, who was a chef for more than 50 years. Mike'l and his wife, Kris, love to try new restaurants every Friday on date night.