Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, May 16, 2002
Penne From Heaven

Traditional Italian fare gets a makeover at Ciao.

By Nancy Schaadt


500 Commerce St, Ste 100, FW. 817-335-0500. Mon-Fri 11am-2pm. Mon-Thu 5-10pm. Thu-Sat 5-11pm. Credit cards: AE, DC, MC, V.

obby and Franco Albanese strike again with an Italian restaurant that presents “been there, done that” dishes with freshness and flair. The duo responsible for Fizzi, the effervescent world cuisine restaurant downtown, and the romantic Ruffino’s in Forest Park has opened Ciao in an airy space across the street from Bass Hall.

My first reaction to the Ciao menu was a huge yawn. Just what the world needs, I thought, another Italian restaurant with more pasta-this-ini or veal scallop-whatever. I’m pleased to report that Ciao is the real deal. The salads were sprightly and fresh, and the pasta was cooked to perfection. We had a complete appetizer-to-dessert meal for four, with two bottles of wine, for a frugal $158. The service on a relaxed Saturday evening was terrific — although we did hear grumbling from a table of theatergoers nearby about their check.

Of the 11 dishes we sampled only two weren’t worth trying again. The baked gnocchi appetizer was heavy and dull. The little pasta dumplings just sat in a ramekin with some argumentative cocktail onions and soaked up the sauce. And the Pollo Paesano made me want to pass the dish along to a “friend” or, better yet, an enemy. Two chicken breasts and bits of asparagus swam in a brown gravy that reeked of the tart, musky scent of balsamic vinegar.

Of the things we liked, the Caesar and Tri-colori salads were the tops. Fresh salad in April hardly seems like a stretch, but since more and more people (and restaurants) rely on lettuce in a bag, newly cut romaine tossed with a pumped-up, anchovy-heavy dressing and crunchy croutons made for a sensational Caesar. The Tri-colori salad was as tasty. Radicchio, arugula, and endive lettuces were tossed with walnuts and a potent vinaigrette that made good use of the strength of balsamic vinegar to state its case.

It’d be wrong at this point not to talk about the Eggplant Rollatine appetizer. Strips of eggplant were rolled with fontina cheese, roasted red peppers, ricotta, and pesto, then placed on a light bed of marinara sauce. Vedat Lika, the chef at Ciao, added enough of each ingredient to make the elements easy to identify; his restraint kept the dish from becoming cumbersome or overly filling. Flawless execution.

The tilapia topped with oregano and Parmesan cheese was made up of two hand-sized filets that were broiled with the topping and served with a side of pasta. To me, tilapia is the tofu of the seafood section, bland and uneventful. The tilapia at Ciao was as innocuous as an inoffensive fish can be but was made zesty by the breading that topped the fish. Plus, the side order of penne dressed in marinara was delicious.

We also tried a special, Shrimp Fra Diavolo. Ordinarily the dish gets its fiery demeanor from hot peppers. At Ciao, the heat and flavor come from garlic. Lots and lots of roasted garlic. Served over capellini, the dish had five huge 12-to-a-pound (three-bite) shrimp that tasted so fresh they could have actually been swimming hours earlier.

Another gem was the Fettuccine Bianco. Perfectly tender fettuccine was topped with fresh English peas, strips of roasted red pepper, pine nuts, and chunks of pancetta ham (like an Italian bacon but cured, not smoked); these were tossed in a fresh cream sauce and served with a sprinkle of fresh basil. The sweet peas and pine nuts danced a tango on the tongue when added to hearty pancetta and rich red pepper.

The desserts were also delightfully executed. The tiramisu was fluffy and rich. The cannoli was messy, breaking into bits at the slightest touch, but was worthy of praise, and the cappuccino pie was like an airy version of cappuccino ice cream.

So it can’t be said that anyone with a credit card would ever go hungry near the Bass; there are a bunch of restaurants over there near the hall’s Commerce Street location. Where’s Ciao? Somewhere between the see-and-be-seen scene of Angeluna and the yuppie action of the Fox and Hound. Ciao is upscale but not stuffy. Wait-staffers wear t-shirts — not button-downs, and the restaurant has a polished yet casual feel. Scott, our server, was patient and attentive and pretended not to notice when I shoved the menu and wine list into my handbag. Ciao, baby.

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