Correction: Ciao Italian Restaurant is open for dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. And the web address is ciaoitalianrestaurant.com. This review listed incorrect information.
“Ciao” is informal Italian shorthand for “hello” and “goodbye,” and Italians use it offhandedly to say “hi” and “see ya later.”
So it’s a clever thing to name an Italian restaurant, and kudos to Suzanne Boscarolo and her then-husband Alain, who in the mid-’80s opened the place with that name in a Seventh Street storefront just east of Broadway.
He, one of the numerous alumni of the fabled Jacques and Suzanne to start his own place, ran the Legacy Hotel for several years. She opened Ciao Baci on Beechwood Street in 2001 as a second location, which she still owns and operates.
In 2004, she sold Ciao to Becky and Tony Mobly. They’ve continued to operate it with good cheer and high standards. The ever-smiling Becky runs the front and loves chatting with customers - regulars and first-timers. Tony is in the kitchen cooking the mostly northern Italian cuisine.
The now comfortably shabby restaurant occupies three storefronts, with a slight down-slope from west to east (access to the east dining room requires negotiating a modest ramp and we cannot remember a time when Becky, or whoever seated us, didn’t remind us to watch our steps). Each dining area has quirky but charming decor (even the corridor to the restrooms, which features posters from local theatrical presentations), with seating at tables of various sizes; window-side tables are well and justly prized. (In the west dining room they’re in little alcoves, almost tiny private dining rooms.)
Ciao uses black tablecloths and napkins and solid silverware. Plates are as attractive as many of the plate presentations.
The east dining room, the newest (although it has been open for several years), has shelves on the eastern wall with wine bottles (including a few straw-wrapped chiantis) and wine glasses. A well-polished mirror on what used to be the door gives a deliberate illusion of additional space.
We found great joy in just about all our appetizers, particularly the Vine Ripe Tomato and Mozzarella ($8.99), medium-size, rich-red and tasty tomato slices layered with fresh mozzarella and, not fresh basil, as the menu promises, but a pleasant pesto. It comes on a sizable bed of fresh baby spinach, which is a nice bonus, particularly if you’re vegetable-deprived.
And you simply can’t go wrong with Ciao’s Italian Garlic and Cheese Bread ($4.99), a good-size basket of fresh Italian bread slices rich with garlic, melted cheese and herbs.
Something new since our last visit: just about every piece of pasta we put in our mouths was, or was nearly, al dente - Italian for “firm to the tooth,” which many consider the only correct way to cook pasta.
Such was the case with the mushroom-filled pasta pockets in a rich sherry cream sauce that comprised the Wild Mushroom Ravioli ($8.99). Delicioso!
Excellent lobster and mushroom bisques ($3.49 cup, $4.79 bowl) have been the soups of the day for weeks.
We mentioned that the menu is mostly northern Italian, so more pasta comes with cream sauces than red sauces. In the latter category, we liked the Cheese Manicotti ($6.29 on the “Lunch Express” menu, $12.99 among the “seasonal dinner selections”), firm pasta wrapped around ricotta and some mozzarella, topped with Ciao’s extraordinarily chunky marinara (and by chunky we mean with very large pieces of tomato).
That the kitchen is flexible we discovered by asking to jigger the mixture on our Linguini with Red, White or Natural Clam Sauce. For years we sort of enjoyed the original house version, a cream sauce with parsley and chopped clams, but we always secretly wished we could have it the way we first encountered Italian clam sauce - clam juice, olive oil, a little garlic and without cream.
Behold, our waitress told us. “This is Ciao. We can do anything you want.” So we got our clam sauce halfway between “White” and “Natural,” with clam juice, parsley, olive oil and perhaps a kiss of garlic. It was a little sloppy, but just what we wanted. We would recommend, however, unless you’re walking in with a monster appetite (or not ordering appetizers), go for the $8.99 half order because we ended up taking home almost half the $14.99 full order.
If you’re in the mood for something heartier, try the Veal Marsala ($15.99), veal medallions in a thick, not too-sweet Marsala wine sauce with two kinds of mushrooms (chopped portobellos and the usual “stems and pieces”), served on a good size bed of linguine and with, alas, a squash-and-zucchini medley as the side vegetable. Our veal medallions were reasonably tender but a little on the thick (and therefore chewy) side.
Entrees come with a choice of a house salad in a tarragon vinaigrette ($3.49 a la carte) or a cup of soup of the day (which we slyly used as a way of getting our mouths around those bisques).
Ciao recently started offering off-menu prime aged beef tenderloin specials, which the website proudly proclaims is “steak so tender, you can cut it with a spoon.” There are three topping choices: “traditional,” with blue cheese crumbles and “Tony’s balsamic reduction”; “Spicy,” shrimp and crawfish in a Cajun cream sauce; and “Ultimate,” three prawn-size shrimp in a garlic-butter scampi sauce.
Yes, the “Ultimate” sounded altogether too good to pass up, and yes, the price tag on the “Ultimate” is $46.99, and no, we didn’t realize it until we got the check, even though it’s clearly hand-printed on the special board in the entrance way (which is a good object lesson to always read such boards carefully), and yes, dammit, it was worth every single penny.
The steak, medium-rare just the way we asked for it, may not have been quite tender enough to cut with a spoon (though we confess we didn’t try), but it was tender enough to cut with a rounded table knife (the waitress thoughtfully supplied a hog-sticker, well-worn wood-handled steak knife, just in case). It tasted just the way a steak ought to taste, and the nearly garlicky, perfectly cooked shrimp provided just the right accent. (The scampi, by the way, if you just can’t justify ordering it on top of a $47 steak, is also available as at $7.99 appetizer and, over fettuccine, as a $15.99 entree.)
Full as we were, we wouldn’t normally have yielded to an end-of-meal up-sell, but we ordered what we thought would be a light dessert. Turns out the waitress’s description of some soaked berries over some sponge cake was grossly inadequate: What we got was an enormous sponge-cake tower merrily smothered in cream, chocolate and cherry syrups and raspberries, blueberries and strawberries soaked in two liqueurs and two infused vodkas. A bargain at $5.99; no,we didn’t finish it, but we left very few scraps.
Service at lunch and dinner was very good to excellent (drink refills are prompt and there’s always a basket going around with irresistible fresh dinner rolls), with the exception of a dinner visit when Becky was helping out in the shorthanded kitchen. That possibly slowed its output (we had a rather long wait for our appetizer that evening, for example) and left the busy wait staff to cover too many tables while seating customers and running the register. We’d rate that service experience as only fair.
Address: 405 W. Seventh St., Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5:30-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Weekend, Pages 31 on 05/09/2013
Print Headline: Chow still excellent at Ciao