The Austin Chronicle

Neighborhood Italian

Great Food Compensates for Ill-Fated Location

April 25, 1997, Food

Brick Oven at Blue Willow

1608 West 35th Street, 453-4330
Mon-Thu, 11am-9pm; Fri & Sat `til 11pm; Closed Sun.

The Brick Oven
photograph by John Anderson

Shopworn clichés about the three most important factors in real estate (location, location, and location) hold doubly true in the restaurant business. An incredible yet poorly placed eatery can go bankrupt in months while a mediocre cafe can be a gold mine in a well-trafficked site. If you need proof, consider these four words: shopping mall food court.

The Brick Oven at Blue Willow suffers from a distinctly poor locale -- an awkward lot on West 35th Street near Kerbey Lane -- that provides high visibility but very little incentive to stop. Odds are you've passed the renovated frame house (currently painted with a huge rainbow) or noticed the free standing signs advertising various drink specials, but failed to stop due to everyday automotive momentum or the apparent lack of parking. But once inside the brightly colored walls, one finds an exceptional neighborhood Italian joint where comfort and great service compensate for a somewhat doomed location; a restaurant highly-deserving of recognition and resuscitation.

The atmosphere at the Brick Oven is relaxed and inviting, due as much to a knowledgeable, attentive waitstaff as to the welcoming decor. On both visits, the dinner crowd consisted of a few tables, and the staff's personalized service gave the illusion of eating at a friend's house. When asked about taste, wines, and general recommendations, both waitresses answered with the quick, personable authority of folks who know their menu intimately. Both also paid constant attention to smaller details (full bread baskets, ample dipping oil levels, and cracked pepper offerings) without missing a beat.

The 35th Street Brick Oven (independently owned by David Forbes, founder of the original Brick Oven on Red River and its Arboretum counterpart which are now franchised off of him) gives pasta and pizza equal billing, and in doing so fills the vacuum between higher-dollar trattorias and everyday pizzerias. The copper-clad oven visible in the entryway turns out the restaurant's trademark pizzas (thin crust in individual sizes) as well as an exceptional house bread. The pizza crusts emerge with a distinctive texture that toes the crucial line between hearty bread and crisp cracker. Their house basket bread (a standard Italian loaf with several other grains) comes to the table hot and fresh. It's hard not to go to town with the olive oil provided for dipping.

Subtle combinations of fresh herbs form the cornerstone of the Oven's pasta, pizza, and salad offerings, which is a welcome approach in a cuisine dominated by heavy-handed red sauces. Their ravioli (appetizer portions $4.25, lunch portion $5.95, entrée $10.50) come swimming in a pool of marinara that uses hints of fresh basil and just enough garlic to complement the fresh, spinach-filled pasta pockets. A notable entrée standout is the Chipotle Pesto Chicken pizza, which plays sautéed breast meat against sweet red bell peppers, carmelized onions, and roasted garlic while avoiding the severe afterburn pitfall of the chipotle genre. Salad dressings (all made daily on site) also use fresh herbs to their best advantage, especially their parmesan peppercorn and tomato basil varieties.

Even drink specials designed to entice potential drive-by customers -- often poorly executed gimmicks -- are prepared with care and quality. Brick Oven's strawberry bellini -- a bargain at $1.50 a glass -- consists of puréed ripe strawberries, white wine, and a bit of champagne. Sweet and tangy, it's just about right for a light dessert if there's any room left. -- Pableaux Johnson

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