Sometimes, you come across a bit of unexpected excellence that makes life, as you know it, worthwhile. In a recent case, for me, it was a breathtaking meatball.
People often ask if I'm jaded, if I expect too much from a restaurant or if I go in with a slash-and-burn attitude towards every skinless boneless chicken breast and crabcake I meet. I think everyone expects all kinds of critics to be jaded and weary--surely Wilonsky's ears have lost their edge and Seitz has turned into a mushroom from so much time in screening rooms? (How could it be otherwise? We've all watched "The Critic".)
The truth is that I look forward to visiting new restaurants and I hope to be thrilled every time I eat out. I never visit a restaurant expecting inferior food and poor service. On the other hand, I strive not to have unreasonable expectations. (I've been married twice. You learn something.) I am more often accused of being too kind than too particular, but it is wonderful when you are served food you expect to be passable, and taste instead something wonderful. Like a perfect meatball.
Ciao Bella has slipped easily into the old Joey Tomato space on McKinney at Hall. "Easily" because the premise--meaning promise--of the current tenant is the same as its predecessor's: good, unpretentious Italian food. (As "Joey" used to put it, "we don't serve pasta, we serve spaghetti." Sounds easy, but when every other restaurant is trying the same thing, you wonder why in the world anyone would give it another shot. Of course, people do keep getting married, too.)
The amazing thing is that Ciao Bella succeeds. I guess it answers the question: what are most of us really looking for in a restaurant? Most people, when I ask, answer: value. And I reply: oh, get real. We don't just want value. We want cheap. After all, good value just means the experience was worth the money. Big deal. Dining at The Mansion might be worth the money. So what? That doesn't mean we cheerfully drop a hundred bucks on a Saturday night, "worth it" or not. What we really want is someplace so cheap that we can justify eating there whenever we want to. Ciao Bella is pretty much in that price range. At lunch, everything except some of the fish and veal was under 10 bucks; most of it under six. These are drive-through prices. At dinner, dishes cost a little more, but still the bill totalled considerably less than in most Italian restaurants. Even the wine was mostly under $25 a bottle.
On the other hand, you'd never go to a restaurant that seems cheap. That's the catch. And, that's where the meatball comes in, in case you were wondering.
"The" meatball was served at dinner, unsurprisingly perched, just like the song, on top of spaghetti in tomato sauce. My famous dining companion tasted it first and raised his eyebrows. "Wow," he explained. "That's some meatball."
I'm not even really a meatball fancier--it wasn't my meatball or anything--so of course I was skeptical (I didn't say jaded). Still, I am a responsible critic, so I tasted the meatball. It was truly some meatball. It's rare that something as seemingly unremarkable as a meatball can make you remark on it. This meatball was big, as big as a golf ball, it was incredibly tender. Patted together with a gentle hand, it had not been over-browned in the pan--perhaps it was even poached, and its texture was incredibly fine, the flavor subtly sweet. You rarely meet such a meatball at this--or any-- price. The tomato sauce--tangy, light, chunky--did it justice. The noodles were pale.
Lunch had not really held out the promise of such a meatball. Lasagna came in a bubbling, boiling individual casserole full of slippery noodles and stringy cheese, impossible to eat. Only after a quarter of an hour had it calmed and cooled enough to get acquainted with. A special of thin-pounded pork medallions in a bread-sopping wine sauce was rather surprisingly good and original, just because it was pork. "Don't ask for the pizza because the oven isn't working yet," we were told, so we didn't. Bread was easily ignored.
So, lunch was fine but not exceptional. So dinner took us by surprise. Besides the meatball, we enjoyed a chicken breast rolled around prosciutto, ground veal and spinach--actually , canneloni filling--and filmed with a thin rosemary cream. For pasta, we attempted linguine in an oily pesto sauce. To begin, more prosciutto draped over less-than-perfect melon and rubbery mozzarella with mushy roasted peppers. But then, a variation of veal cordon bleu--which I hate, but this tasted fine--called "Scaloppine Ciao Bella," so I had to order it. The thin slices of veal were layered with yet more ham and eggplant slices, then glued together with melted mozzarella into a pleasing whole where you could yet recognize the parts. All the entrees came with--surprise--julienned vegetables.
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Okay, so the whole meal wasn't wonderful. But hardly anything in life is 100%. Parts of our Ciao Bella experience were very good, the price was right, especially at lunch, and, there was that meatball.
Ciao Bella, 3232 McKinney Ave., 871-2074, FAX 871-4919. Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., live jazz till 1 a.m.
Chicken Corona $6.50
Seafood Pasta $7.50
Grilled Chicken $5.95
Spaghetti &Meatballs $6.