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Italian-inspired: Bravo! serves well-prepared, tasty dishes

No one believes Olive Garden has a “culinary institute” in Tuscany, no one thinks Macaroni Grill was once a rustic barn, and no one considers ABQ Uptown’s Bravo! Cucina Italiana authentic Italian food. Still, we enjoy these places anyway, despite the illusion, because of our near-universal fondness for Italian food and because they are pretty good.

Bravo! is pretty good for a small national chain – but it’s not exactly authentic.

Bravo! Cucina Italiana is located in Uptown. (Jason K. Watkins/For the Journal)

The facade matches that of any other upscale eatery in a retail district, but it’s when you’re immersed in the interior that you realize where you are: The decor is a mixture of The Cheesecake Factory (which is itself a Vegas casino’s interpretation of an Italian restaurant) and a classical-themed high school prom. Faux Greek columns stand in “ruins” across the dining room, accented by modern light fixtures and stained wood. It feels both fancy and all smoke-and-mirrors at the same time.

Unlike The Cheesecake Factory, though, Bravo has a simple menu: a few appetizers, a few salads, a few pizzas and a few pastas. Waiters bring a small basket of rosemary focaccia bread to the table with a tiny amount of olive oil with red pepper for dipping. The bread has obviously been reheated, because it crumbles in your hand like cornbread, though the oil makes it a little more palatable.

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The main course is better. Pasta Fra Diavolo with chicken (“Devil Monk” in Italian, $13.79 for the lunch portion) is a hearty and spicy dish featuring campanelle pasta, strangely anthropomorphic with a ruffled edge and shaped like a cone. The design holds more flavor, but the chile-infused tomato-based cream sauce was so thick, it could have worked just as well with spaghetti or linguini.

The chicken, though sparse, was cooked and seasoned perfectly. After a few bites, the spice caught up and made the whole dish a little too rich to enjoy. Small, red bursts of flavor, which were either red peppers or sun-dried tomatoes, added a different dimension but were eventually overpowered by the spiciness. The usual complaint with orders of pasta is not enough sauce, but in the case of the Pasta Fra Diavolo, I should have considered requesting light sauce.

The shrimp scampi had a much subtler flavor profile and was overall more enjoyable. Thin capellini is tossed in a little white wine and finished with tomatoes, chili flakes and pesto bread crumbs (though those are barely noticeable). For $13.99 (lunch portion), it’s a light, summery dish that won’t weigh you down for the rest of the day. Just don’t expect jumbo shrimp.

The scampi comes with two slices of delicious garlic crostini toast, though, for some reason, the Fra Diavolo does not. My guest shared hers with me, and it became my favorite part of the meal.

Service is good, and except for the weekend dinner rush, the wait is manageable. If you want to skip the line during peak hours, you can make a reservation online. The restrooms are exceptionally clean and stylish, per chain-restaurant custom, and parking is abundant just outside the restaurant or down below in the adjacent parking garage.

Soda-brand loyalists should be prepared to hear the unofficial Pepsi slogan: “Is Pepsi OK?”

With a central and convenient location, Bravo! is a good lunch spot, but it’s a little too pricey for a dinner visit. And although it’s not authentic Italian food in the way Villa di Capo and Scalo are, it’s a little more affordable and tasty nonetheless.

And it sure beats Olive Garden.

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