[MetroActive Dining]

[ Dining Index | Metro Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

The Bella the Ball

Ciao Bella
Robert Scheer

Rocky Mountain Fare: Ciao Bella owner Tad Morgan (left) and chef Cezare Gonzales show off a few of the creations the Italian culinary mountain hot spot has to offer its neighborhood clientele.

In the heart of the redwoods, an overly exuberant Italian eatery provides an garlic-infused pit stop for its San Lorenzo Valley patrons

By Christina Waters

TAKING SERIOUSLY ITS MISSION as the only culinary roadhouse in the heart of the San Lorenzo Valley, Ciao Bella has tricked itself out in plenty of roadhouse theme paraphernalia. The music blares '50s golden oldies, the staff likes to hum along, and the walls of this venerable cottage/restaurant (the former Buffalo Gals, among others) are plastered with sports banners, movie star posters and Polaroids of staff and customers.

Owned and operated by the folks who formerly brought us Capitola's Fiorello's Restaurant, Ciao Bella runs a menu of popular Italian recipes--myriad pastas, zesty antipasti, classic entrées. The place is busy, it's upbeat and it's acquired a cult following among locals grateful to have an eatery in their own back yard.

The diminutive restaurant was still decorated for Valentine's Day when we took our seats last week for a dinner of nonstop sensory bombardment. And I don't just mean the garlic, which weaves a delicious thread through every Ciao Bella dish, save dessert.

A prominently mounted wall heater churned noisily while Dean Martin and Eddie Cochran crooned accompaniment. The small tables are so tightly packed into the two dining rooms that our waiter was in danger of igniting his buttocks on our hurricane lamp as he read the menu to our next-door customers. In short, the atmosphere in the attractively decorated dining rooms is as thick as Kookie Burns' hair cream. But nobody seems to mind.

Graced with the poorest lighting scheme imaginable--wall sconces illuminate nothing in particular, and most of the main dining room sits in murky shadow--Ciao Bella was starting to fill up as we sipped our drinks and placed our orders. From an excellent listing of wines that showcases local vintages, I chose a 1993 Ahlgren cabernet sauvignon ($5.75), and my partner a pint of ESB Red Hook ale ($3 on tap).

Todd, our waiter--who on at least two separate occasions announced that he was Todd our waiter--made a fun show of pouring extra virgin olive oil into a saucer, flinging in a fistful of minced garlic and then splashing in some balsamic vinegar. We were to anoint our excellent francese bread with the aromatic unguent. We did this often.

Next came a Ciao Bella version of a Caesar salad--the egg is hard-boiled and grated on top--and a very nice house salad of curly leaf lettuce and tangy vinaigrette. Served with an anchovy on top, the "Caesar" ($5.95) had plenty of flavor, excellent romaine and wonderful crisp croutons (salads come with dinner, and you can upgrade to the Caesar for $2 extra).

We shared the evening's appetizer special, Tuscan steamed clams ($8.95), in what was to prove the finest flavor orchestration of the evening. A deep soup bowl was filled with tiny, tender Manila clams in their shells and a fine, savory broth. Lemon, parsley, lots of garlic, some fresh tomatoes, white wine and fish stock all met and mingled in this primal ooze that we simply couldn't stop eating.

My entrée platter of penne al arribiata ($9.95) was a palatial pile of pasta laced with ribbons of aged ham, tomatoes, barely detectable basil, plenty of pepper, a splash of wine and a hit of cream. The sauce had a friendly flavor, though after five or six forkfuls I began to long for a few more ideas. Perhaps smaller portions and something on the side to break up the monotony of a palisade of slightly overcooked penne.

With as much alarm as I could muster, I noticed that my companion was opening up each one of his round raviolis and looking for a trace, any trace at all, of the promised crab. He had ordered the house specialty crab ravioli in marinara sauce ($16.95), but had received ricotta-stuffed ravioli innocent of crab. Todd agreed. Todd promised a free dessert. Todd had done what he could.

So we received a slice of very nicely made custard pie with a dollop of whipped cream ($3) on the house, and ordered up a slice of New York-style cheesecake, with a rock-hard chocolate cookie crust that had been drizzled with chocolate syrup ($3.50). The chocolate part was not mentioned on the dessert list. I'd expected "Italian cheesecake" to mean some sort of crostata.

Oh, well. Maybe things are different in the mountains.

Ciao Bella!

Address: 9217 Highway 9, Ben Lomond
Phone: 408/336-9221
Hours: 5­9pm Sunday­Thursday (till 10pm Saturday­Sunday)
Price: Moderate
Chef: Cezare Gonzales
Ambiance: *1/2 Roadhouse eclectic, loud
Service: **Energetic, helpful, very casual
Cuisine: **Hit and miss, but flavorful
Overall: Great steamed clams and the rest of the menu offers a reasonable alternative to driving to Santa Cruz for hungry San Lorenzo Valley diners
****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

[ Metro Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

From the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1997 Metro Publishing, Inc.