On Saturday night, AV and I ventured out into the wilds of the UES to find dinner. It was on the early side and we didn't have anything in particular in mind, so we wandered looking at menus for a while (skipping the new Libertador Argentinian restaurant nearby due to excessive attitude) before ultimately stopping at Ciao Bella.
We were greeted by no fewer than three people as we entered the room. We were then given several choices of tables and ultimately settled on one in the corner, probably the wrong choice as the space was a little awkward. Nevermind; we were there to eat, and we dove right into the expansive menu, making our choices and placing our order with the incredibly badass maitre d', who, as AV put it, looked as though he could grate parmesan cheese with merely a withering stare.
As we waited for our first course, we tackled the bread. The thick, oblong slices of white bread felt a tiny bit on the stale or overbaked side-- the interiors were no longer soft-- but they went very well with the flavorful sun-dried-tomato-and-crushed-red-pepper olive oil, a very nice touch.
We had decided to share an appetizer, which emerged quite promptly. The Carciofi alla Romana, or Roman-style artichokes, were supposed to be pan-roasted but emerged as complete grease-bombs. We both really wanted to like this dish--after the artichokes at Eleven Madison Park, we are both very pro-artichoke-- but despite the fresh ground pepper our waiter offered (and we accepted) when the dish appeared (bizarrely), the artichokes were seriously underseasoned and oily to a fault. When we added a bit of salt, trying to salvage the dish, the taste improved a bit, but we both gave up after a while, leaving this app unfinished.
We were more successful with the main courses. AV's choice of fettuccine bolognese was a good one; he said the pasta was perfectly cooked and the sauce was tasty, if perhaps a little salty (which is ironic, given the artichoke situation). The portion size was quite reasonable, as was the price ($15).
My own selection was the baby spinach salad, which came with raspberries, candied walnuts, mushrooms, pancetta, and raspberry vinaigrette. I asked for a substitution for the pancetta, and the maitre d'/waiter was incredibly accommodating, giving me exactly what I wanted. I went with hearts of palm, which turned out to be the best part of salad. All the ingredients in the salad were really tasty, although they didn't meld together all that well. The strikingly fresh raspberries were a nice treat, however.
Ciao Bella emits a "cool" vibe: it seems like it would be a nice place for a relaxing drink at the bar. Even the bathrooms are sultry, if a bit bordello, in their red-and-black scheme (N.B.: If you visit, be careful about locking the door behind you... you may think it's locked and then someone may barge in on you in the middle of your, um, stay. Just, you know, hypothetically.) And while some of the dishes missed, others were really solid. It's clear if you order well you can have a truly excellent meal here, which makes Ciao Bella a classic three Offset Spatula restaurant.
1640 Second Avenue, at 85th Street