In Little Italy, the classics and more

Ciao Bella's bread is worthy of note: The rest of the meal has its ups and downs

Sunday Gourmet

September 05, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If anyone has any doubt that Little Italy is keeping up with the times, consider the bread at Ciao Bella, a nice little restaurant steeped in neighborhood tradition. This is simply a spectacular loaf, crisp-crusted and fresh, with plenty of flavor -- a far cry from the tasteless but mildly enjoyable fluff that used to grace every restaurant table in Little Italy. Bravissimo!

We didn't end up cheering about everything, though. We had some good food, but we also had some not-so-good food. I can see how Ciao Bella could be some people's favorite Little Italy restaurant -- if they knew what to order. But our meal was so uneven that the best I can do is recommend specific dishes.

The menu is classic Little Italy, filled with antipastos, veal saltimboccas, chicken cacciatores and frutti di mares.

The specials are where the chef gets to strut his stuff, and what you order if you don't want classic Little Italy fare.

This evening there are a salad and two entrees. While the specials are a bit more expensive than the regular menu, Ciao Bella seems to have abandoned that common neighborhood practice of charging much higher prices for items not on the menu and hoping you won't ask.

I sit looking at the salad special I ordered and then at my husband's antipasto, really a glorified salad, and realize I've made a bad mistake. Here I am in a Little Italy restaurant eating greens, Gorgonzola cheese, walnuts, strips of jicama and a blueberry -- yes -- blueberry dressing. It just isn't working for me. My husband, on the other hand, is happily consuming an enormous plate of greens, Italian meats and cheeses, olives, pepperoncini and a fine vinaigrette, all of which demand bread. I push my plate away and start helping him out, since his antipasto is clearly meant for two.

As much as I love that bread, I can't help but notice that my friend's crab toast is made up of more bread and less jumbo lump crab than I expected, considering that it's an $18 appetizer. Still, I can't fault the combination of crab, brandy, cream and softly melting provolone. My other friend is looking gloomily at his shrimp oreganati, which involves five shrimp swamped in a lake of butter and crumbs overwhelmed by oregano. Once he dives in and rescues them, though, they are perfectly fine.

He perks up when his main course is placed in front of him, one of the two entree specials. The veal tenderloin, just pink as ordered and silky smooth in texture, couldn't be better -- unless you bathed it in a brandy cream sauce, which Ciao Bella does. Here the herb in question -- sage -- is used with discretion, so that it lingers elusively rather than socking you in the face. Little roast potatoes come with the dish.

My husband's swordfish, the other special, is pleasant enough with its Mediterranean topping of tomatoes, Greek olives, capers and onions but it doesn't produce the died-and-gone-to-heaven reaction that the veal does.

My main course is out-and-out inedible. (I'm having a bad night.) This is the shrimp di Stephano, named for owner Tony Gambino's grandfather. The large shrimp are butterflied and stuffed with crab imperial; the filling is much too salty. They and their bed of fettuccine are floating in a cream sauce so sweet it tastes bizarrely like dessert.

I push my plate aside and start working on my friend's penne in Bolognese sauce. It's the classic meat sauce ramped up with lots of cream and a slug of vodka, and I love it. Why spend $29 for the sugary shrimp di Stephano when you can get this gem for $18?

We guess what three of the four desserts are before our waiter tells us -- cannoli, spumoni ice cream and tiramisu. No problem there; we love the familiarity. (The fourth is tartuffo, an individual ice cream bombe with candied cherries and a hard chocolate shell.) Although cannoli are standard fare in Little Italy, and I suspect most of them come from Vaccaro's Pastry Shop down the street, the shell of ours is fresher and crisper and the filling creamier and more satisfying than most.

Like many other Little Italy restaurants, you would never guess looking at the dining room that Ciao Bella is a fine-dining restaurant. The decor is pleasant but nondescript, and two women arrive in blue jeans. You'll feel overdressed if you wear a tie.

Yes, someone has misplaced our reservation, but other than that, the service goes along with very few hitches. (The worst being that my husband's request for more bread is forgotten.) The staff delivers the warm, all-in-the-family feeling that keeps people coming back to Little Italy even when there are trendier Italian restaurants elsewhere in the area.

Ciao Bella

Food: **

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 236 S. High St., Little Italy

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$24; Entrees: $14-$35

Call: 410-685-7733

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