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I knew I was in the right place. I'd come here for a reason. When I'm having one of those days that only warm carbs and cheese can solve, I seek out the best pasta in town. And Ciao Bello never disappoints.
Sure enough, in a matter of minutes, the first of three dishes was placed gingerly in front of me so as not to upset the delicate plating. There were four flat rounds of pasta lining the bottom of the plate, and atop them were small piles of slivered garlic, multicolored peppers — deep-red Calabrian chiles and bright-green pepperoncini; and hearty proteins — spicy guanciale and buttery littleneck clams. It was a dazzling array of colors, textures and smells that at first seemed as if it could have used some editing. After stabbing a bit of each element onto my fork and taking a tentative bite, though, I realized that I should have known better than to second-guess this chef when he sends out one of his new favorite dishes.
This was the corzetti alle vongole, one of the evening's specials, and one of Bobby Matos's inventive takes on classic Italian food that has kept fans of both tradition and innovation coming back to Ciao Bello night after night ever since this casual branch of the Tony Vallone empire opened in 2009. On the evening I so desperately needed pasta, Matos came through with two other dishes so divine — yet so different from one another — that I never would have been able to name my favorite.
5161 San Felipe
Houston, TX 77056
Crispy Tuscan kale: $8.95
Warm goat cheese salad: $9.95
Pappardelle bolognese: $18.95
Corzetti alle vongole: $19.95
Doppio ravioli: $19.95
Pan roasted Atlantic salmon: $23.95
Chianti-braised Wagyu beef cheeks: $26.95
Butternut squash-filled pansoti is served with a decadent sage cream sauce flavored with just a hint of truffle oil. Upon first taste, I found the sauce smooth, earthy and slightly funky, but as soon as I bit down on the pansoti, releasing the sweet orange squash purée inside, the entire flavor profile began to evolve into something more complex and unexpected. It became a fanciful meal in itself, no longer simply what Italians call primi piatti, or first course.
The pappardelle with bolognese sauce is as comforting as the corzetti special is unusual. Thin ribbons of house-made pasta swirl around tender ground beef with just a hint of acid from tomatoes — not a tomato sauce, mind you. This is a classic bolognese with an emphasis on the balance between meat and acid that makes it thicker and more buttery than the average robustly acidic tomato sauce you might find at a lesser Italian restaurant.
Ciao Bello does Italian the way Vallone remembers it and the way Matos envisions it should be. It's the combination of old-school Italian and new-school flavor profiles that has elevated this restaurant from the lesser cousin of Tony's to real competition. When Ciao Bello first opened, many acknowledged that it still had a lot of growing and finessing to do. Nowadays, a server told me, people come in and whisper that they prefer Ciao Bello to Tony's. The food is heartier and less fussy. You can wear jeans and slouch at the table and accidentally use the salad fork for your beef without feeling like you've committed a grave mistake.
And you can lick the remaining sauce out of the pasta bowl when you're done (believe me, you'll want to), and no one will think anything of it.
Whether you're a newcomer or a regular, you're greeted warmly when you walk through Ciao Bello's heavy wooden doors, most often by general manager David Siegman, who will be looking dapper with coordinated tie and pocket square. Matos emerges from the kitchen on occasion to make sure everyone is enjoying the food, and on my most recent visit I saw Vallone eating at a table in the main dining room with a few friends. There's an undeniable family atmosphere at Ciao Bello that makes you want to sit and stay for a while.
Perhaps it feels so much like a small trattoria rather than the large, bustling restaurant it is because the kitchen produces the kind of Italian comfort food Vallone grew up with. It's la cucina casalinga — home cooking — but with enough panache that Houstonians, always eager for the newest and best, can get behind it.
There's the cappelletti, little pasta "hats" stuffed with sweet, creamy mascarpone and funky, aromatic taleggio swimming in a thin, opaque sauce of wild mushrooms intensified with cognac. The small pockets of soft cheese enveloped in pasta manage to stay light enough for a quick lunch-break offering, and, paired with an appetizer, the compellingly simple dish makes a fine dinner. And then there are the corzetti alle vongole, the bolognese and the pansoti — each hand-formed doughy offering better than the last.
You can't go wrong with a pasta dish at Ciao Bello, but the best of the best pasta I encountered is the doppio ravioli. It's not on the regular menu yet, and if it's still not by the end of the year, I'm writing a letter to the mayor.
Four oversize pieces of ravioli are arranged on a plate so they look like one giant square of pasta. They are topped with olive oil, fried sage, roasted chestnuts and a light pan sauce. When you look closer, you can see the zigzag edges and two raised bulges in each pocket of dough, which is why they're called doppio — two fillings per raviolo. At first the fillings — one bright yellow and one deep fuchsia — look like sauces themselves because they're covered in such a thin layer of dough. But cut into a soft piece of raviolo with your fork, and the almost-neon purée of red and yellow beets will come oozing out.
Never having had beet-stuffed ravioli before, I was initially skeptical. Do beets have enough flavor to create a compelling dish? Will the starch in the beets work with the starch in the pasta? Is the texture pleasant? The answers, I found, are yes, yes and yes. Rarely have I been so pleasantly surprised by such a simple dish. The purées are sweet but earthy (they're roots, after all), and the smooth texture contrasts with the chewy chestnuts and crisp sage. And then there are the vibrant colors, which end up smeared all over the plate; think of Frankenthaler or Pollock canvases. The doppio ravioli is a multisensory experience.
In a menu as extensive as Ciao Bello's, though, it's no surprise that there are a few items that fall short of the greatness that is the pasta. Pan-roasted Atlantic salmon errs toward Asian influence, due mainly to its overly sweet Meyer lemon glaze and the bed of black rice on which the non-Italian fish rests. Chicken paillard is tasty but fails to beguile with either unique or pleasantly traditional flavors. Even these items aren't bad, though; they just don't have the wow factor of the pastas, which admittedly are hard to top.
Everyone raves about Ciao Bello's pasta and the Neapolitan-style pizza, so I was surprised when several friends suggested I order the beef cheeks. Even the bartender who took my order informed me that meat is truly where Matos shines. Seriously, I wondered. I was under the impression that his forte was tagliatelle, ravioli, orecchiette and the like, so if he thought he could top that, I'd like to see him try.
Here's a lesson I learned: Never challenge a chef, even if it's only mentally.
I thought Matos could do no better than the pasta I had, so delicious it requires a moment of reverent silence when it's brought to the table. But I was wrong. The beef cheeks, oh, my heavens, the beef cheeks! Meat so tender it falls apart with a sigh in a sticky sweet Chianti glaze on a warm bed of fragrant wild-mushroom risotto — this is Ciao Bello's pièce de résistance.
Upon tasting the first melt-in-your-mouth morsel of perfectly braised beef, redolent of mushroom from the wilted fungi beneath it, I closed my eyes, leaned back in my chair and promised myself I'd remember that moment and how wonderful it is when good, simple food has the power to make everything else in the world seem unimportant.
I recently came across a Twitter rant by the digital editor of Saveur magazine in which she lamented the fact that when you write about and are surrounded by amazing food constantly, it starts to lose the allure that it once held. Foie gras is a weekly meal, and shaved truffles are no longer a delicacy, and you feel as if you can't give credence to anything that isn't avant-garde, unique and mind-blowing. She continued with the most important thing I've read in a long while:
"But then sometimes you have the moment, and it's magical, and you remember that people love this, and you are people, and you love it."
I think food writers — and really, all people who love food — need to be reminded once in a while that not everything must be cutting-edge and exclusive. Not everything needs to be Tony's. There's a need for Ciao Bello, too, and all the satisfied people who take comfort and pleasure in its homey character and classic food are proof of that.