By LINDA GIUCA, Special to The Courant
The Hartford Courant
October 7, 2013
Brenda and Lynne Reilly are upholding a tradition. As the owners of Tuscany Grill in Middletown and its sister restaurant, Baci Grill in Cromwell, the sisters-in-law are the third generation of women to own and operate a restaurant. They also are watching the fourth generation – their daughters and nieces – learn the ropes.
"I met Brenda when I was 5 years old," says Lynne, who married Brenda's brother, Tim Reilly, also an owner until his death in 2009. "We're a close family."
The three Reillys – Tim, Brenda and Lynne – opened Tuscany Grill in 1995 in the old Middlesex Opera House. After 18 successful years, the popular eatery closed recently for a facelift and reopened Aug. 2.
"You don't know how many customers you have until you close," Brenda says. "People were sticking their heads through the plastic [covering the front of the restaurant] and saying, 'Oh, you're closed!'"
The refurbishing project included new paint, lighting fixtures and wood floors. The massive bar, which seats 35, was refinished, the rest rooms were gutted and newly outfitted and the kitchen was redesigned and updated. The walls along the walkway from the bar to the dining room have become a gallery of photographs and awards, the memorabilia tucked into the arched windows that once displayed theater posters.
The menu also received an update, but not as drastic a makeover as Brenda and Lynne originally planned.
"We were looking at revamping the menu," Brenda says, "but we got feedback from our customers who said they thought we were going to change the core of who we are."
The Reillys and their chefs decided to blend the old and the new, and the menu now offers two categories of entrees. Regulars will find their favorite dishes in the "classics" section that carries over familiar, best-sellers such as Orecchiette Tuscany (grilled chicken, broccoli, sausage and the elephant ear pasta in a parmesan cheese sauce); and the eggplant tower layered with roasted peppers, spinach, cheese and plum tomato sauce. Another crowd favorite, the seared sirloin salad with creamy parmesan peppercorn dressing, gorgonzola, tomato, roasted corn and crispy onion rings garnish, also made the cut.
Seared sea scallops remain on the menu but moved to the “contemporary” list of entrees with a new preparation. The seafood is now served with parmesan risotto, wilted spinach and blood orange gastrique. The contemporary selection also features chorizo, clam and mussel stew and butternut squash ravioli and rosemary chicken with broccoli rabe, caramelized red onion, slow-roasted cherry tomatoes and sherry cream sauce.
General manager and bar manager Ruth Shea works closely with Tuscany Grill's chefs to create and pair cocktails to new dishes. Shea's Forbidden Fig Martini was featured in the September Bartender magazine, and her Peach Pie cocktail was singled out by Onyx Moonshine, a Connecticut liquor company, in a recent tasting competition. She is working with the chefs on a beer dinner that will take place on Nov. 13.
The Reillys considered themselves pioneers, choosing to create a restaurant in the mid-1990s during the beginning of downtown Middletown's revival. When Brenda, Lynne and Tim decided to open a restaurant in the mid-1990s, there were few restaurants in the downtown area. "No one was here when we opened," Lynne says.
"Now, every year, several restaurants open," Brenda says. "We keep wondering, who put out the memo that Middletown's streets are paved with gold?" But Middletown has become a dining destination."
Brenda recalls that it was "almost scary to see how busy we were" when Tuscany Grill first opened. "We came from a comfortable establishment in Portland," she says of the trio's J.T. Reilly's restaurant, "to two-hour waits here. But it was fun, the energy was fun."
Tim, in particular, was the visionary, his sister says. He relished "the thrill of putting a deal together. He would ask for things, and I'd cringe," says Brenda, adding that she and Lynne would execute his ideas. "We'd walk away and say, 'I can't believe we just did that'." In Brenda's eyes, "Lynne has always been the wheels that make this engine go."
The women learned to rely more on each other after Tim died, and they continued to maintain his connection to customers. They are proud that the restaurant runs on "woman power" as Lynne and Brenda like to say. Shea and her counterpart, Baci Grill's general manager Megan Wrinn, are part of the team, while four fourth-generation female Reillys also work at the restaurants.
>>Tuscany Grill is open daily on Sunday, 3 to 10 p.m.; Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant is at 120 College St. Information: 860-346-7096.
>>Connecticut chefs Joel Viehland and Tyler Anderson are on the move. The award-winning chefs will swap restaurants and host a special dinner celebrating local ingredients and the farm-to-table movement. Anderson and Millwright's restaurant in Simsbury will welcome Viehland on Oct. 15, while Viehland and Community Table in Washington will open their kitchen to Anderson on Nov. 11. Each dinner will feature six courses and a selection of wines. Tickets are $90 plus tax and gratuity and are available at the hosting restaurants. For information about the Oct. 15 dinner, contact Millwright's at 860-651-5500. For tickets to the Nov. 11 dinner, visit Community Table at communitytablect.brownpapertickets.com.
>>The Corner Pug in West Hartford and Long Trail Brewery will host a Harvest Beer Dinner on Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. Chef Emiliano Brites will prepare a four-course dinner paired with four beers. Joe Orsini, a Cicerone certified beer server, will comment on the beers. Cost is $47 plus tax and gratuity. Reservations: 860-231-0241.
>>The menu tells a tale of each dish, but the real story at Bonefish Grill in South Windsor is in the tasting. The Florida-based chain has introduced a special Tuesday menu of lobster dishes, including a lobster tail dinner with a choice of salad and a fresh side ($12.90). Also on the specials list are lobster roll sliders with fries ($7.90), steak topped with Lobster Thermidor ($16.90) and a steamed cold-water lobster tail that can be added to any dish or eaten on its own ($7.90). Information: 860-648-0096.
>>Abigail's Grille and Wine Bar in Simsbury will host a Jordan Winery dinner with Courtney Cataruzolo Thrusday, Oct. 10, at 6:30 p.m. The multi-course dinner is $89. Reservations: 860-264-1580.
>>The charming Restaurant L&E in downtown Chester is now open for lunch Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Inspired by global cuisines, the menu's highlights include Caribbean Black Bean Soup and Vietnamese Pho, "between the bread" selections such as Choucroute Garnie and a New Orleans fried oyster Po' Boy, and L&E's French Frappes. Information: 860-526-5301.
>>BALLO Italian Restaurant and Social Club at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville is offering a new wine special. Bottles of wine $100 or more will be discounted 50 percent every Sunday. Sample wines include Sangiovese Barbi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004. Information: 860-862-1100 or www.balloitalian.com.
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