Great minestrone, even on a hot night

September 03, 1998|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's a steamy night, the kind that calls out for iced gazpacho or chilled cucumber soup with dill. But we've taken refuge in the polished dining room of Ciao Bella in Little Italy, and that means our soup options are limited to those of the hot Italian variety.

I sweat just thinking about ordering the minestrone. But if the kitchen can turn out decent minestrone on a night like this, a night when no sane person would possibly order it, I'd be impressed.

I am. Not to make too much out of a bowl of soup, but this is no ordinary minestrone. It's a summer stew of vegetables at their peak of freshness. Instead of beans, pasta and tired cubes of frozen vegetables, there are hand-cut chunks of celery, carrots, plum tomatoes, zucchini, corn and chopped greens. They have been seasoned with herbs and simmered just long enough for their flavors to merge.

Anthony Gambino, who opened Ciao Bella seven years ago, is running a tight operation here with help from his son, Tony Jr., and daughter, Lisa. The kitchen, for the most part, is paying attention to details, and so is the wait staff, which showers us with fastidious service.

We like the atmosphere in the dining room. The place is done in cream and wine, with dark green curtains cascading through gold hoops, and prints of Renaissance women hanging on the walls.

In some respects, Ciao Bella is a typical Little Italy restaurant. Its house dressing, a creamy vinaigrette with bits of cheese and a touch of sweetness, tastes a lot like the house dressing at some of its neighbors up the street. Prices are mostly moderate, but specials and market-priced dishes can be high, a common problem in Little Italy.

The market price for our crab toast appetizer, essentially two pieces of garlic bread topped with crab imperial, is $17.95. It's hard for any appetizer to live up to that price, and this one, though it's rich tasting, doesn't quite make the grade.

The menu at Ciao Bella, like at most restaurants in the neighborhood, is filled with Italian classics, from parmigiana and cacciatore to Marsala and piccata. Under signature entrees, there are dishes that sound more unusual, like the shrimp Ricardo with a sherry-orange cream sauce. Unfortunately, the sauce is so startlingly sweet - with pieces of orange segments tossed in - that it's barely edible.

The shrimp is served over linguine, cooked as nicely al dente as our penne primavera. The sauce on the penne reminds us of the minestrone, with freshly cooked carrots, celery and greens in a chunky tomato sauce scented with white wine. It's simple, satisfying and low-fat to boot.

That's not how we'd describe our broccolini di pollo, a breaded chicken cutlet topped with broccoli spears, sliced mushrooms, melted provolone cheese and a full ladle of butter sauce. The portion is enormous, with the two tender chicken breast fillets nearly covering the plate. But the rich sauce is a problem. The dish would be better without it.

Desserts include a classic spumoni and cannoli, and tortoni with a twist - dipped in white chocolate and filled with raspberry preserves and vanilla ice cream.

Ciao Bella

600 S. 236 S. High St.

410-685-7733

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$21.95; entrees, $10.95-$24.95

Food: **1/2

Service: ***1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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