PORT CLINTON — It's tucked away in Vacationland, and it's not lakefront. But guests coming to Ciao Bella are most likely here for the food.
This Italian eatery offers a wide range of options, from the classic meatball lasagna and chicken Parmesan, to signature dishes such as osso bucco and bacon wrapped dates.
Open just more than a year, Ciao Bella is the third culinary brainchild of Mel and Barb Ayers: It followed the opening of Nagoya Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi just east of Port Clinton in 2005 and a second Nagoya at Levis Commons in Perrysburg a short time later.
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I have been to Nagoya in Catawba many times and never had a bad experience. So now, the couple is taking on Italian? I was curious whether the popularity of their sushi joints would spill over into southern European cuisine.
Based on both visits, I would say yes. Whether it's part of a trickle-down theory related to the popularity of their other restaurants, or word of mouth about the great cuisine, the restaurant was packed both nights, and guests spilled out onto the outdoor wooden deck that, while tucked behind a mostly empty strip mall, overlooks a man-made pond with a fountain.
The restaurant, both inside and out, had a classy feel. Tables were covered in linen tablecloths, the lighting was dimmed and not overpowering, and the menu offered more than 75 wine selections.
We started with appetizers. The goat cheese al forno, which had herb goat cheese baked with caramelized onions, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and served with grilled baguettes ($8.99) was a favorite. The sweet flavor of the balsamic paired nicely with the tang of the goat cheese. The bacon wrapped dates ($9.99), a house specialty, is a must order. I would bet a bottle of Italian wine that even if you don't like dates (or think you don't), you will love these. Smoky bacon envelops the dates, which are then oven-roasted with a maple balsamic glaze.
The carpaccio appetizer ($10.99) was outstanding as well. The thinly sliced beef with the mustard aioli "melts like butter in your mouth," as one of my dining partners noted.
Onto the entrees. There's not enough space for me to describe them all but ones that stood out for me were the veal Parmesan (the red sauce was smooth and not overpowering and I never touched my knife to cut it); from "the grill items" portion of the menu, the grilled chicken saltimbocca ($18.99) which was moist and flavorful; and a special the second night, spiedini di pesce — a colorful dish of iron-seared shrimp and scallops with vegetables, whole wheat Israeli couscous, basil pinenut pesto and balsamic reduction ($25.99) — was beautifully presented.
Instead, I will tell you why this restaurant stands out no matter what you order:
The wait staff. They were delightful and are obviously being trained correctly. They engaged us in conversation, knew their stuff (or quickly grabbed someone to get an answer if they didn't) and explained it well.
Fresh, natural ingredients. All of their sauces, dressings and desserts are made in-house by executive chef Paul Matthews, his sous chef, and his pastry chef.
The pasta is fresh. The sausage is an in-house recipe, and the chicken is farm-raised in Ohio. The fish was "in the lake or ocean just a day or two ago," the waiter said. Our server on the second visit pointed out the restaurant's own herb and vegetable garden behind the establishment when I asked about the fresh feel to every dish that graced our table. Local growers also contribute, he said.
We figured out that eating at Ciao Bella is all about melding flavors. A bite of chicken stuffed with prosciutto and sage was better accompanied by its dish mates — sauteed asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes. A seared scallop scooped up with couscous and sweet pesto gushed in your mouth. The panna cotta was enhanced by the sweet caramelized bacon on top.
The menu offers numerous gluten-free options to draw in a more diverse crowd. There was no eye rolling or "we can't do that here" when we asked for changes. Red onion instead of caramelized white onions on a pizza ($9.99)? Sure. Skip the mushrooms in the lobster al forno ($15.99)? No worries.
A (very) few criticisms: While the fish with the swordfish gremolata ($25.99) was cooked to perfection, the pasta that came with it was puzzling — the linguini with julienne vegetables was dry with virtually no sauce or flavor — not even fresh herbs or olive oil. Not worth the price. The first bite of the filet mignon with the surf and turf ($25.99) was way too salty; the rest was perfectly seasoned. Watch the navigation of those salt shakers. The stuffed mushrooms ($8.99) were okay, but lacked any kind of cheese to bring them to great status.
Oh, and the chocolate gelato? It's worth visiting this restaurant for just a bowl of that.
Contact Bill of Fare at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants. The Blade pays for critics' meals.