Every so often I sit down to do a review and just don’t quite know what to say. That is why it takes me a while to get these out; sometimes, they have to percolate in my mind or else require an extra visit. This was the case with Ciao Vito. I had so many mixed experiences there, I ended up going four times before I could write this review. I wanted to make sure I had multiple experiences since I know some people will be upset with my overall rating.
I’ll take a different approach from usual and tell you my feelings at the beginning. I know people that rave about this place. I know people that really don’t like it. Both groups know a fair amount about food, but for some reason I walked in the door knowing I was going to enjoy myself. I did, but for the company and the environment, not the food. Every time I’ve been to Ciao Vito there has been some flaw that prevented the meal from rising to the point of being really good. I guess inconsistency is the word here; however, the overall experience can still be enjoyable.
The space is very comfortable, all done in earth tones with heavy curtains breaking it up and cutting sound. On an early evening lots of light streamed in from the outside, giving the walls a pleasant glow. The high back wood chairs are very comfortable. The dining area wraps around the kitchen in a ‘U’ shape, with a large bar on one side, a community table in the middle, and finally the dining area. Lots of candles light the tables, a few incongruous chandeliers hang towards the front, and Ella Fitzgerald floats in the background. This would be a good date place. From the moment you are seated to the time you walk out the door, service is excellent: friendly and for the most part knowledgeable, though on one occasion I was told sugo means pork, when it is an Italian word for sauce.
Wine list pretty good, about three pages, heavy on Italian, but with a sampling of other regions. Prices average between $25-$60.00 a bottle with lots right in the middle – definitely some decent choices. They have a full bar with some unusual cocktails that are REALLY good. Several of the infusions are homemade, and it really shows in the drinks.
Chef Vito Dilullo was formerly chef of Cafe Mingo, so you know he has the ability to pull off some really good menus. Following the pattern set at Mingo, he pays great attention to seasonal produce when crafting his dishes. The menu is split between Italian salads, pastas, and polentas, and dishes with more Northwest roots, such as duck, pork chops, and razor clams. Here are some selections from a recent menu consisting of 10 appetizers and nine entrees
Your meal will start with bread and a decent olive oil. Though they may seem a little bit expensive at first, all of the appetizers are huge. The antipasti della casa is enough for a whole table with a good selection of vegetables such as cauliflower, marinated broccoli, and beets, with late summer figs to counterpoint the other flavors. Mozzarella cheese and house-cured meats add still more, while two crostini finish the plate.
On one night the Caesar was a very light style with lots of subtle flavors that allowed the different ingredients to come through. Nice for a warm summer evening. Unfortunately a week later it was all out of balance with too much lemon stomping on everything else. A special appetizer of flatbread with three cheeses melted over it was not really Italian, but enjoyable none the less, vanishing quickly from the plate. The roasted beet salad wasn’t just a few beets, this was a huge mound that left even a beet lover like myself a bit daunted. For one shocked moment a few hours later I stood in the bathroom thinking I was hemorrhaging. One night they were a bit bland, but on another visit they were sweet and wonderful, but both times they were accompanied by a perfect amount of blue cheese and slightly spiced nuts. Salads overflow the plates, a mixed greens with lemon vinaigrette was so large, when the server sat it down conversation came to a halt. The calamari is enough for a meal, and was perfectly cooked, one of the better I’ve had in Portland, with just the right amount of crunch. Spaghetti Agli’ olio with chile flakes and breadcrumbs is a classic Italian dish, simple and direct. Here the pasta is wonderfully light, the ingredients all work together perfectly. It is a wonderful, filling appetizer for $8.00.
Entrees are also large and reasonably priced. The polenta is really different from what you might expect. This one has a crispy outside and a very creamy, moist inside. Crunchy breadcrumbs are scattered throughout making an interesting texture that I didn’t especially care for, but that was just me – others really liked it. The sugo of pork comes over two huge triangles of the polenta. On my first visit it was just okay, the flavors were a bit muted, and the portion of pork seemed a bit shy. Something made me try it again on a subsequent visit. They must have netted a pig somewhere in between, because this version had a huge mound of flavorful meat bringing it into the ‘pretty darn good’ category.
The crispy duck legs were a disappointment. First of all the duck wasn’t all that crispy, though the second leg was better than the first. The blueberry sauce was nothing to write home about; it just seemed like they had made a marsala and thrown about 15 blueberries into it. End result: unless you got a blueberry in a carefully orchestrated bite, it just tasted bland. While the beans were quite good, the accompanying potatoes were a sad afterthought. I wouldn’t have this dish again. On the other hand, the breaded, pan-fried razor clams are excellent. A sweet red-pepper jam tangos with the clams, a sweet, spicy flavor offset by tangy vegetables.
So let me recap: my first meal was decidedly just okay. My companions and I agreed that while the food was okay, it wasn’t worth driving across town for. On the second and third visits, the food was much better, but wait… we haven’t covered the desserts. Our choices were:
Cookie plate with chocolate truffles
Panna Cotta with fresh berries, toasted almonds
Sacra pantina cioccolato
Chocolate Tuscan layer cake
Chocolate pot de crème
Seasonal fruit crisp
Almond marzipan cake with homemade plum jam, Ammoretto whipped cream and toasted almonds
I have to say, I’ve only tried two of them, but those were enough of an example that I couldn’t bring myself to ever have another one. Take for instance a trio of gelato. A dining companion took a bite of one and recoiled. “This tastes just like skunk!”. I rolled my eyes; some people just don’t know how to taste. I took a long sniff from the bowl. “Oh my god, this does smell like skunk!” Throwing caution to the wind I took a taste. It was the single worst gelato I’ve ever had. The coffee beans had obviously gone bad before they made the gelato. A vanilla and chocolate accompaniment were rather devoid of a good excuse to take on the calories.
Crisps are my ultimate winter comfort dessert. Well, except maybe for things with pumpkin… oh and pears, hmm… anyway, I make a damn good crisp. This one looked good but the bowl was cold. The crisp itself was topped with the aforementioned vanilla gelato. A too thick oatmeal-style crust sat glued to the top, and the fruit was absent any flavor. The whole thing was served cold. I’ve had better desserts at Denny’s. The ending brought what was otherwise a reasonably good meal to a hard landing.
If the meals here were consistant, I’d give them 2.5 stars, possibly even three. Unfortunately with every visit there has been at least one huge flaw that has kept the overall experience from rising to that level. I have no doubt they can overcome these issues and will return. In the meantime, I recommend Ciao Vito if you are in the area and make your selections carefully. The prices are certianly reasonable, and you can have a good meal here.