There are white tablecloths at Ciao Bello, and personable albeit highly professional waiters. There's an extensive wine list covering most of the world, but with a clear emphasis on Italy. There's an air of sophistication permeating the dining room, even during the day, when well-dressed businessmen and ladies who lunch converse thoughtfully over glasses of rosé.
But there's also pop art on the walls and flat-screen TVs showing football games at the bar. There's no foam or gel on the plates, and no foie or tasting menus. There's not much Tony's at Ciao Bello, and that's what's so refreshing about it.
Tony Vallone opened Ciao Bello, the subject of this week's cafe review, in 2009 as the casual sibling to his eponymous powerhouse restaurant that has been serving celebrities and die-hard food-lovers since 1965. Tony's has evolved into the seat of fine dining in Houston, its name synonymous with luxury, innovation and the local who's who.
Ciao Bello got off to a slower start, initially leaving critics skeptical that this restaurant could ever live up to the precedent that Tony's set.
But here's the thing: It isn't trying to.
Ciao Bello is a monster all its own, and an impressive one at that. The decor is charming, the service molds itself to what the diner desires (Want to be chatty? They can be chatty.) and the food is some of the best Italian in the city.
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Sure, Tony's does miraculous things with food, turning commonplace ingredients into works of art beyond what diners could possibly imagine. But sometimes--and in my case, more often than not--I don't want a tasting menu filled with delicate eccentricities. I want a big bowl of fabulous, mind-blowing pasta. I want melt-in-your-mouth beef that I have to get a doggy bag for because it's just so much delectable meat. I want an unfussy salad with greens and a simple dressing.
This is not to say in any way that I don't like Tony's. I love Tony's. I love knowing that on the rare occasion I get to eat there I'll have a truly special meal. But Ciao Bello is the type of place I can eat once a week, and I can show up in jeans after a long day and not feel out of place.
The best thing about Ciao Bello? The chef, Bobby Matos, and the rest of the staff pay the same attention to food as do the chefs at Tony's. It's different food, less expensive food at Ciao Bello, but no less marvelous. With the exception of a few lackluster (but definitely not bad) dishes, Ciao Bello produces the same quality of food that makes my eyes roll back in my head in bliss when I dine at Tony's, only it's more comfortable and more familiar.
Walking into Ciao Bello for dinner every few weeks, I find myself thinking, "Hello, old friend. I'm back. Sorry it took me so long."