A recent “report” from The Onion carried the headline “American People Lead World In Compressing Big Sandwiches So They’re Bitable.” It was a joke, of course, but it’s true that an increasing number of eateries seem to think you’ll still be impressed with their towering sandwiches after shelling out 12 bucks.

Brio Café is a new and welcome exception to that trend. Rather than try to impress with flair and big portions, owner Dina Collins is focusing on offering simple, tasty and traditional food with a modest gourmet bent that isn’t reflected in the prices. Collins was already doing this at Brio Bake Shop near Buena High School, but that space lacked any room for seating. Now, in the wake of the sad fact that La Trattoria Italian Restaurant shuttered in this space a year ago, a whole lot of medical workers in midtown have cause to rejoice for a different kind of Italian eatery on Main Street, between Loma Vista Road and Ventura High School.
The highlight here is sandwiches. Served on house-made foccacia and Italian rolls, these could tempt many wannabe gluten-sufferers out of denial. Foccacia is offered with the cold sandwiches; it’s spongy and boasts a fresh, yeasty flavor. Hot sandwiches come on Italian rolls with a tangy cranny-laden interior and a slightly chewy crust. Similar to how rice is supposed to be primary in sushi, and the pasta itself is supposed to be primary in, well, pasta — Brio Café is a stark reminder of the difference that fresh artisan bread makes for a sandwich.

The chicken cacciatore is a great sandwich, despite falling short on its claims to spiciness. With thigh meat simmered in a thick tomato sauce and covered with melted provolone and meaty slices of portobello, the flavors are strong and rich along with the toasted Italian roll — a perfect cold-weather lunch. The ricotta meatball is another great hot sandwich; having ricotta that’s actually folded into the meat with parsley rather than melted on top makes for extra-moist and flavorful meatballs.

Sandwiches aren’t the only draw. Salads are prepared with the same flavor-rich, rustic sensibility. The chicken salad has big hunks of moist breast meat over a bed of greens, and slices of marinated onions that evoke a good agrodolce sauce (the vinegary Italian sweet-and-sour). In the Portofino salad the richness of cured salmon is balanced with the mild flavor of hearts of palm and a bright lemon vinaigrette — solid flavors considering these salads are less than eight bucks.

The prominent pastry case is a blunt reminder that this business once called itself a bake shop elsewhere. Chewy and thin snickerdoodle and ginger-spice cookies sit on top, along with some dense banana bread. Inside the case there’s a variety of personal-sized cheesecakes, which are sweetened lightly but just enough.

One odd aspect of Brio Café, at this juncture, is that it’s open at seven in the morning and the bright yellow awning indicates “breakfast.” A man working the counter was a little confused (if not offended) when asked if they had any other food for breakfast. Fair question — most of the menu is squarely later-day fare, besides the ham and Swiss sandwich (and quiches, scones and croissants in the pastry case). Maybe that will change as the business builds momentum. For now, a homemade croissant with a locally sourced cup of joe from Beacon Coffee Company seems a solid enough morning offering.

All this rustic, yummy food has so far precluded talk of the atmosphere, which is very different from the previous restaurant tenant. La Trattoria was the kind of Italian restaurant with dim lighting, checkered red and white tablecloths, and plastic grapes hanging from wood lattices — hokey but cozy. The renovated space is bright, amplifying light from the street with bright yellow- and sage-colored walls. It’s also very neat, almost too neat, though vintage Italian commercial art on the walls prevents it from feeling clinical. Rather than being the kind of cafe that seems to invite you to bring a laptop and work on your novel all day, Brio Café feels more designed around being a clean, well-lighted place to sit and savor something for a moment before moving on with your day.

Check out my food tasting tours at www.venturafoodtours.com.