I've gotten to the point where the thought of free food doesn't excite me anymore. That's why I'd never made the effort to try out Ciao Bello's happy hour even though I knew that they had free pizza. When I found myself in the Galleria area one afternoon around 4 p.m. craving pizza, I found myself walking through Ciao Bello's doors.
Virtually empty when we arrived at barely 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon, Ciao Bello is housed in what was once Jimmy Wilson's Seafood & Chop House. From what I could tell, the Vallone group has done little to change it since the takeover. The bar is the first thing you see when you open the door, so we grabbed prime seating smack dab in the middle with easy access to the bartender.
Ciao Bello's happy hour is actually a very good one. Drinks are $5, and while many places offer just wells and beer or wine, we had a choice of frozen drinks for the same price. I ordered a peach bellini, while my friend chose a strawberry bellini, and then we waited expectantly for the pizza to arrive.
"So how does this work with the free pizza?" I asked the bartender. "It's simple, I order it and then it comes out. I have a pepperoni on order which will come out in a minute," he said. The other bartender, a young woman, asked us if we'd had their pizzas before. "It's really good, just wait 'til you try it," she said. My expectations were extremely low, so I eyed her skeptically, thinking "free" meant that it would taste no better than a frozen pizza.
Well, I was wrong. Way off the mark, totally out-of-the-ballpark wrong.
Within minutes, an extremely large, exceedingly thin-crust pizza arrived, beautifully plated on an impressive rectangular plate. My friend and I eyed it hungrily and each took three pieces, but after the first bite, I was already looking around to see where the rest of the pizza had gone, and whether it would make its way back to us so I could get another piece.
"Can we get some more?" we asked the bartender ever-so-sweetly. He smiled indulgently and entered an order into the computer, promising that we'd like what was to come next.
By this time, I was ecstatic about the free pizza, because it definitely wasn't frozen and it definitely didn't taste bad. This was paper-thin-crust artisanal pizza to rival the straight-from-Italy franchise Piola. This was a pizza that I would gladly pay the $15.95 regular price for, that they were giving away - for free.
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I wasn't shy when the "artigiano" pizza with goat cheese, caramelized onion and shaved pear arrived. I heaped my plate with several slices and noshed greedily, feeling like I'd stumbled upon one of Houston's best-kept happy hour secrets.
Perhaps it's not well known because the location feels somewhat suburban, lacking the "hip" factor that draws a large happy hour crowd. Whatever the case, after paying our embarrassingly measly $10 tab and leaving a generous tip, I knew I'd be back for the pizza, and not just because it was free.