Dining Review: Hearty Italian chow at Ciao

Mr. Pitts' Special adds spicy sausage and meatballs to a hearty Bolognese sauce served over penne pasta.

Photo by Ben Fant // Buy this photo

Mr. Pitts' Special adds spicy sausage and meatballs to a hearty Bolognese sauce served over penne pasta.

At 7 p.m. Saturday night, we were among a couple of dozen people queued up at Ciao Bella near the commercial heart of the Poplar corridor. A man and woman who arrived at the front desk ahead of us heard that the wait would be 40 minutes and said, "Pizza Hut it is" as they reversed direction.

But we took the news in stride, ordered wine and watched college basketball on two screens in the waiting room, along with other hopeful diners whose ages spanned at least seven decades. There were four adults and five kids -- playing with four digital devices -- at a table next to us. (The ravioli, pizza and linguini on the kids' menu range from $6 to $9.) A couple supported by canes were solicitously led to a table soon after we arrived. We were surprised at how quickly a relaxed and smiling hostess came to find us -- within 20 minutes at most.

In fact, we were surprised by how upbeat-but-calm service in general was while the multitudes were fed here, and fed extremely well.

The piccante pizza, with pepperoni, spicy sausage, red onions and mushrooms.

Photo by Ben Fant

The piccante pizza, with pepperoni, spicy sausage, red onions and mushrooms.

     Televisions occupy diners in the bar  while  they wait for tables.

Photo by Ben Fant

Televisions occupy diners in the bar while they wait for tables.

We started with an octopus carpaccio, which was listed on the chalkboard at the door when we entered -- our server didn't mention it among the many specials, so you may want to check out that list for yourself when you arrive. This was one not to miss. The thin slices of octopus rested on a briny mix of olive oil, lemons, parsley and capers.

Under the "Chicken, Pork, Veal" section, we went straight for the osso buco of the day, which on Saturday was a veal shank that was tender and delicious but drier than this braised dish typically can be. It arrived on one side of the plate with a small fork planted in the center of the bone to scoop out the marrow, and had an excellent hearty brown sauce. We only wished the kitchen would have been more indulgent with the spoon; we easily could have handled twice as much.

The best part of this plate were the creamy giant white beans -- the Greek gigandes -- mixed with "Our rustic Italian country greens," which looked just like peppery, sauteed turnip greens to us. The savory beans are done in the osso buco braising stock and could stand alone as an entree.

Cioppino -- usually a fish stew -- was served as a pasta, linguine, with a fish-studded tomato sauce. There was a liberal scattering of mussels, calamari, chunks of grouper and shrimp, but it was hard to distinguish a particular flavor in the sauce -- a more forward presence of pepper, garlic, maybe fennel, would have put it over the top.

Dessert? Definitely, always the cannoli at an Italian place. I like a dominantly cheese-and-milk filling, but Ciao Bella's filling leans heavily on sugar, which produces a cake-frosting effect. If you like dairy-based desserts, choose the limoncello gelato, which is super rich and creamy.

On a peaceful Sunday night at Ciao Bella -- which means "hello or goodbye, beautiful" in Italian -- we had an easy time finding a booth as soon as we arrived. The intriguing menu title alone drew us to Mr. Pitts' Special, a penne pasta with an accomplished Bolognese sauce. The classic Bolognese with ground beef is thick enough on its own; Mr. Pitts makes it even more substantial, gilding the sauce with spicy sausage and meatballs.

Knowing that executive chef Jonathan Steenerson is dedicated to using not only locally grown produce, but also meat from nearby providers such as Newman Farm in southern Missouri and Heritage Farms in Forrest City, Ark., eased my uneasy carnivore's conscience.

That sausage also decorated the piccante pizza, which drew some of its piquance from pepperoni and sweetness from red onions. An airy, crunchy crust provided the perfect platform.

We chose the two least expensive Italian red wines -- a Melini Borghi D'Elsa from Chianti and the Villa Pozzi Nero d'Avola from Sicily. Both were full and intense enough to stand up to the meat-heavy meals we ordered.

When you see crowds stacked up in the bar and waiting room, you fear that you may be either forgotten or rushed, but the staff here creates an assuring atmosphere of competence. The two women who were in charge of the wait list took turns making occasional quality-control strolls down the aisles of the dining area.

Part of this restaurant's charm is that its food and service set such a high standard, while the dress code and atmosphere are defiantly casual. The one common note here is the interior design; the strip-mall location seems to set its tone.

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Ciao Bella

Food:

Service:

Atmosphere:

Address: 565 Erin Drive, near Mendenhall and Poplar

Telephone: (901) 205-2500

Hours: Sunday through Thursday, from 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m.

Reviewer's choices: Octopus carpaccio, $13; Osso buco of the day, market price; piccante pizza, $15 for 12-inch pie; Mr. Pitts' Special pasta, $17.

Alcohol: Full bar.

Star Ratings

Poor: Zero stars

Good: One star

Very Good: Two stars

Excellent: Three stars

Extraordinary: Four stars

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