Was it the toothy grin from the hostess who gestured me in with such welcome that any warmer, I’d have been in her arms? Or was it possibly the amber napkins and saffron wallpaper which lent an air of radiance to the firefly-faint incandescent lighting? Surely it wasn’t just the bright flames from the oven which were coaxing flavors of hickory out of slabs of wood and imparting them to the homemade pizzas in the open kitchen? But there was definitely something about Ciao — located at 2 Hickory Hollow Lane in Ithaca — that glowed.
I kept looking for it. It wasn’t on the dish of butternut squash ravioli that felt like a savory pumpkin pie gone awry. Unless my olfactory organs were playing tricks on me, there was certainly an unpleasant plastic aftertaste to the butternut squash filling, which was wrapped in an overly thick, pasty casing of pasta. Neither was that special glow found on a plate of chicken cannelloni, whose filling of chicken and spinach looked like toilet paper bits rolled in green ink and whose pasta sheets were overdone and starchy, though the combination tasted better than it looked.
Despite these occasional missteps, everyone around seemed to be extremely happy. Kids stopped wailing and began flailing excitedly when their chicken parmesans came around, and business executives were toasting each other merrily with specialty cocktails and glasses of bold Italian reds. Slowly but surely, Ciao grows on you. Somehow, after a few more visits, Ciao’s casual sense of conviviality rubs off you, and the stars of the menu start to emerge and shine.
As a raucous laugh from the bar reached our ears, my dining companion and I dug into our delightful calamari and fried risotto ball appetizers. A simple duo of marinara sauce and garlic aioli were ideal foils for the flash-fried calamari, cooked in batter so light it must have been whipped with helium, producing a hot, wispy coating on the rings of squid. The fried risotto balls burst into a cheesy lava of rice and mozzarella at the mere tickle of a fork, and the discernable grains of risotto were al dente and well-seasoned.
Rounds of dough took off from the pizza chef’s hands at the same time cocktail shakers were launched in secure flight. The spectacle continued with the table-side sprinkling of parmesan on our entrees of shrimp romesco and chicken piccata. The shrimp romesco was comfort objectified — a heady mix of pomodoro and alfredo adding a lush richness to the firm fettucine and clean-tasting jumbo shrimp, amid a shower of crushed almonds.
As much as I am still bewildered by the incompatibility of a lemon-and-cream pairing in classic piccata sauce, the chicken cutlets which it accompanied benefited from its citrus tang. Possibly from a good amount of pounding in the kitchen, the seared cutlets were as soft as our server’s voice was gentle, and as comforting as her service was sincere.
By this time, the restaurant was already abuzz with chatter, some from customers waxing lyrical about a certain Jeremy Lin who could be seen shooting hoops on the large TV screen at the bar, others from overly-stuffed diners cursing the restaurant for their food coma as they rested their heads on the plump banquettes.
The generous entrée portions at Ciao obliged nothing more than a peek at the relatively pedestrian dessert menu, consisting of items like cheesecake and tiramisu. As I slowly sipped my sassy gimlet — which was brightened by a splash of acai spirit and the florality of muddled basil — I took the entire scene in. There was something magical about this place, an effortless verve and an easy pizzazz that make you forget a few misses here and there. I’m telling you — it’s the ineffable, spirited glow.