Hey, good lookin'! Whatcha got cookin'?
Italian food, naturally. Ciao Bella (which means, approximately, "hi, beautiful") is one of Little Italy's newest restaurants, offering a sort of "greatest hits" version of the typical neighborhood menu. In other words, there's not an overabundance of choice here, but most of the popular favorites on the Italian hit parade make an appearance: antipasto, pastas, seafood, a handful of veal and chicken dishes, and cannoli and rum cake for dessert. No, it isn't novel, but I've stopped looking for novelty in Little Italy; a good minestrone and a well-sauced platter of fettucini are fine with me.
Ciao Bella is reasonably "bella" too, in a low-key way. Like the food, the decor -- dark green napery and carpets, red silk roses on the tables, pictures of Venice -- is conservative, but this is hardly a formal place; casual clothes are fine, and our chatty waiter had certainly never been taught that service people should be remote and frosty.
However, just as "ciao" means both "hi" and "bye," there were elements of our meal that we would welcome again, and others that we would give the bum's rush.
Things we could have done without:
The linguini alla Capri ($14). A couple of the shrimp in this seafood pasta dish had a mysterious woodsy taste, as if they had been marinated in Pine-Sol. No harm done, but it was disconcerting.
The pizza ($8). It may have been baked in a brick oven, but the toppings (pepperoni, mushrooms or green pepper) were uninspired, and the thick Sicilian crust was buried under a flannelly layer of bland mozzarella which tasted as if its origins were vegetable instead of dairy.
Things we liked:
The soups. The bowls were big, the tastes homemade, the aromas evocative. The minestrone ($4) had a strong tomato note and a well-balanced bouquet of herbs. The tortellini in broth ($5) had a savory chicken flavor; the broth tasted as if it had been simmered for hours.
The fried calamari ($7.50). The squid rings were a tiny bit chewy, but oil-free, and so flavorful we didn't even need to use the lemon (which was sliced too thin for squeezing, anyhow).
The linguini alla Capri. Yes, I know that's listed above, but most of the dish was terrific. Shrimp, minced clams, and lump crab were laid on with a generous hand, and the cream sauce, although it wouldn't make it onto any "spa cuisine" menus, was not cloying.
Desserts. The cannoli ($2.75) was rich, rich, rich and actually homemade, and the rum cake ($2.75) was voluptuously moist and alcoholic.
The oldies music. Swoony ballads by the Platters let us imagine it was prom night.
Where: 236 S. High St.
Hours: Open 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Credit Cards: AE, MC, V.
Features: Italian dishes.
Non-smoking section? No, but they will try to accommodate non-smokers' needs.