Co-owner Vito Antonazzo describes his new restaurant, open since early June, as having "an Italian flair rather than 100 percent trying to be Italian." Blessed be the man who knows himself. Brick Oven serves Italian dishes tailored to American sensibilities, meaning lots o' cheese, mammoth portions and thick salad dressings, alongside a number of quintessentially American items (burgers, mashed potatoes) and popular dishes that, apparently, the public demands appear everywhere (smoothies, fries). Antonazzo wasn't insulted when I asked whether his concept was similar to Olive Garden.
That said, Brick Oven offers many estimable dishes, especially an olive-y bruschetta, a crisp house salad made with excellent greens (you can ask for olive oil and balsamic instead of a pre-made dressing, and they're brought in attractive cruets), warm focaccia served with a little plate of fresh basil and peppery olive oil, and a tender, succulent New York strip covered in heavenly mushrooms.
Kinks still to be worked out are the decorating scheme, which seems to have been devised by a committee that resigned before its task was complete; terrible Top 40 music; and the lack of a liquor license (they're trying).
The appetizer list demonstrates the restaurant's dual personality: wings, spinach-artichoke dip and fried cheese coexist with bruschetta and roasted tomatoes. The bruschetta is piled high and delectable, despite anemic tomatoes; the chopped olives and good olive oil make up for them. The slightly charred roast tomatoes are stuffed to the gills with goat cheese and more olives.
I liked the peppery minestrone with healthy chunks of tomato, although the pasta shells were overcooked. A "French" onion soup sported a thick canopy of provolone and mozzarella over dissolving bread; the sweet broth was so thick with onions that the bowl could have been a meal in itself.
Pride of place is held by the red brick oven itself, which burns cherry wood as hot as 800 degrees and thus bakes pizzas in 80 to 90 seconds. They're the slightly charred, thin-crusted variety thus more Italian than American and the biggest seller is the Bistro Special, which contains no meat! It's a simple marinara with sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and goat cheese. Other possibilities run the gamut from Mexican (cheddar, jalapeños) to a mushroom trio with cremini to "Rich with Meat," which employs sirloin and beef bacon. Antonazzo says the kitchen is open to any pizza combo you'd like to dream up.
I concentrated on the nonpizza dishes, however, which emphasize beef, chicken and seafood rather than pasta. All come with soup or salad and a side, and four of the five sides are potatoes (including spicy French fries and excellent garlic mashed), so it's not possible to leave unsurfeited.
A hefty hunk of salmon, for example, is dressed with a citrus glaze and marinade; it's good, but check for doneness. Shrimp scampi was disappointingly all-one-flavor, from the charred asparagus to the artichokes to the shrimps themselves, and though the one flavor was a good one garlic butter plus herbs the idea of using numerous ingredients should be to create an interplay of different tastes.
Another seafood choice: fish and chips!
My top-heavy-with-cheese eggplant Parmesan failed so underdone it could scarcely be chewed, and the chef insisted we not be charged for it. It did come with a simple, fresh-tasting yet spicy marinara over penne, a proper accompaniment. Diners may also choose one of four pastas (no spaghetti) and one of six sauces as a $7.95 main course. No ravioli, no lasagna.
The meat selections include a half-pound burger with cheddar, for those who must have a burger no matter the restaurant; lamb chops with mint; and fillet Marsala, the only Italian dish in this section. I could not have cared less about the provenance of the New York strip, however; its tender fattiness was perfectly complemented by the mushrooms that came with, creating a heady sauce I would have sopped up with anything, including my napkin.
For dessert, you can order a smoothie made with real fruit and juices, plus ice cream and nondairy topping. The lemon-lime is tart and different not at all like 7-Up and the Caribbean is mango heaven. You can also ask for a crowd-pleasing brownie, bread pudding with bourbon sauce, cheesecake, cannoli or tiramisu. We tried "Romeo and Julietta," a confection of flaky pastry interleaved with sweetened cream cheese and strawberry compote; the richness of the first two ingredients set off the fruitiness of the other very well.
Brick Oven is attracting a following despite its less than prime location, in a strip mall off the usual Dearborn tracks. It's open seven days; go to www.brickovendearborn.com.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].