Ciao Italia Is Back In Top Form

By Rebecca Cook

IF I WERE forced to choose but one of the world's cuisines on which to sustain my appetites for the remainder of my days, it's a cinch the food of Italy would top my list.

The fusion of vegetables, garlic, herbs and pasta permit an incredibly diverse array of dishes. With the addition of meat or seafood, the possibilities become limitless, allowing a diet so varied and deliciously robust that every conceivable combination of ingredients could be accomplished.

Chow Best of all, perhaps, is the news that Italian cuisine, with its abundance of complex carbohydrates and relative low-fat content, is not only tasty, but healthy.

Maybe this combination of superlative flavor and enhanced nutritional benefits explains the abundance of Italian restaurants popping up all over town. One favorite, Ciao Italia, a staple for many over the years, has recently returned to the scene after a forced hiatus and remodeling following a kitchen fire.

I'm pleased to report that although the overall look of the restaurant has been altered, the same luscious food I lovingly recall is still coming out of the revamped kitchen.

Owner-host Antonino (Tony) Massenti has seen to every detail of Ciao Italia's renovation, including a lighter and more open dining space with classic-looking wood columns and a row of windows along one wall. The central atrium evokes a garden feel, a notion reinforced by the stencils of grape leaves and vines all around the perimeter of the vaulted walls. A mural of an Italian hillside at the end of the bar further contributes to the continental ambiance.

Antipasti, an assortment of several small tidbits meant to be consumed prior to the main course, are the requisite beginning to a proper Italian meal; we complied with this tradition by ordering the fresh baby clams steamed in their own broth, white wine, garlic and spicy pepperoncino as well as a bruschetta topped with a coarse and savory puree of garden-ripe tomatoes, chopped garlic, olive oil and fresh basil.

The half-dozen half-shells were fairly tender and scrumptious, the surplus of savory and piquant broth begging to be sopped up with an additional order of Tuscan bread. Both appetizers were delicious and accomplished just what they were designed for, adequately whetting our appetites.

A main course selection is accompanied by a choice of soup or salad, the soup a pasta e faggioli (short pasta and cannellini beans simmered in a subtle, velvety broth of onions, carrots, celery and garlic) and the salad a colorful medley of mixed greens, carrots and wedges of tomato coated in either a house Italian or gorgonzola cheese dressing.

I'm unable to pontificate on the Italian dressing because no one at my table could resist the allure of a chunky, pungent gorgonzola extravaganza mizzled generously over their greens. Although the house Italian may be one of the yardsticks by which one assesses the merit of an Italian eatery, we had no occasion to regret our choice; the gorgonzola was lightly creamy and peppered with lots of little cheese lumps, which provided a pleasurable wallop of taste along with the roughage.

Wishing to cover as many bases as possible, we made three selections from the comprehensive menu: cannelloni fiorentini, shrimp diavolo and the chicken parmigian.

The cannelloni, which can be found on the menu section entitiled "Fresh Homemade Pasta," consisted of two paper-thin crepes wrapped around a mixture of finely chopped spinach and ricotta cheese, baked in a bath of creamy, white bechamelle sauce. No question, this dish was a little on the rich side, but--especially if you're a spinach fan--well worth the additional calories.

The shrimp dish, a featured special that day, impressed us with its generous portion of simmered crustaceans nestled in a heaping bowl of spicy tomato sauce and steaming linguini.

The chicken--tender, browned and amazingly moist--was chosen in order to assuage any possible guilt from dining on veal. The flattened cut of chicken breast, breaded and sautéed to a deep golden brown and then topped with a savory marinara sauce and thick, melted fontina cheese, proved a smashingly successful substitute.

Dessert is made on the premises. Choices range from cheesecake to an English trifle. We finally decided on the fresh fruit tart and Ciao Italia's tiramisu, one of my all-time favorites, made with espresso-soaked ladyfingers and mascarpone cheese. For me, tiramisu distinguishes a good restaurant from a mediocre one; Ciao Italia more than passed the grade on this one.

A modest but decent wine list, which includes some remarkable chiantis, is available here. And the service, which includes the ever-circulating Massenti, who is perpetually concerned with his diners' well-being, is virtually impeccable.

For those who argue that we have enough Italian restaurants in town, I say nonsense. In the words of Mae West, "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful" (especially when you can make a case that it's good for you). I'm thrilled that Ciao Italia has rejoined the ever-expanding fold of good places to eat in this town. Bellisimo!

Ciao Italia. 1535 N. Stone Ave. 884-0000. Open from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items: $2.95-$16.95. TW

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