Review: Ciao Vito

 

Ciao Vito

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

Nice Mural on Restaurant Wall

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
Gelato affogato
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.

 

  • Phone: (503) 282-5522
  • Address: 2203 NE Alberta St, Portland OR. 97211 Google Map
  • Hours: Daily 5pm-10pm
  • Website: CiaoVito.net

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. A Food Noob says

    Sometime I’d love to hear you knowledgeable folks discuss why that is so. Why are restaurants so inconsistent?

  2. Marshall Manning says

    Our visit to Ciao Vito 3 or 4 months ago sounds like it was a little better than yours, but we still had issues. Our reservation was for 8:15, and it was nearly 8:45 before we were seated, which is a big no-no in my book. We had the calamari, which was good, but a little oily on our visit, and two members of the party had salads (I think it was the Caesar…I’m not a salad eater…but they were too garlicky for the people who ordered them) . My pork chop was excellent, but my wife wasn’t that impressed with the duck, either…it was fine, but nothing special. We skipped dessert, which sounds like it was a smart move.

  3. Betsy says

    The crispy polenta (which I loved the one and only time I’ve been to Ciao Vito, just about this time last year) sounds as if it’s changed – breadcrumbs?

    You’re making me glad that we skipped dessert in favor of after-dinner drinks at the Tin Shed, if I recall correctly.

    In my experience, quality control from night to night really depends on who’s on the front line on any given night.

  4. says

    Definitely who’s in the kitchen. A reviewer friend of mine once quoted a chef as saying, “It only takes three times for a dish of mine being made without me there for it to change utterly.”

  5. Food Dude says

    That is why I go back three times… things change so much from night to night, I try to average. Sunday-Monday are always a crap shoot, those are the days most chefs are off. Girl_Cook says Tues-Wed are the best nights to go out and I am inclined to agree. Then there are always days where the chef is on vacation or out for some reason.

    In my experience this is not just a Portland issue.

  6. witzend says

    Sadly, consistentcy issues are far more common in the newer breed of restaurants; the ones that have “evolving”, “revolving”, “seasonal” menus. Just when the newest line cook figures out that the original recipe called for white pepper instead of black…poof!..the item is edged out with it’s “summer” replacement. Ironically, its the large restaurant chains that have the fewest consistency problems. The recipes, and thier subsequent execution, are mastered with a coorporate zeal that insists that the parsley is always at 2:00 on the plate. By far though, the single greatest culprit is the chef. He will demo one recipe to a linesman, then count on that same cook to pass it on to the next. The result is something akin to the telephone game, ending with a message that in no way resembles the original. (sigh)

  7. Vapid1 says

    The reasons for inconsistency are innumerable. Poor quality is always the Chefs fault. Once your name is on the menu you are ulitimately responsible for the product that hits the table.

  8. chris says

    I would have to disagree with your assessment of the Calimari. It was totally over fried and super heavy on the grease. I felt like it weighed me down. The antipasto was great however, and the bolognese was up to par.

  9. pollo elastico says

    Each time I’ve had the calamari (4 occasion in last year) it’s been great. In fact, all the fried goods here (razor clams, fritto misto) are above par. I do like the texture of the bread crumbs in various dishes – though the spaghetti a-olio was so saturated with olive oil to the point of being overbearing (nothing a split meal and lots of bread couldn’t solve). I had a halibut there last october that was pretty damn good, and the pork chop on an earlier occasion was very good.

    my main qualm is the lack of salt and pepper. it’s by request, and even though they have decent kosher salt in little ramekins (with dainty little scoopers), it seems as though you have to really catch a server at a good time. waiting to salt my food while my server delivers a drink order (and get’s sidetracked by another table’s questions) is really annoying.

    and the bathroom is right in front of the back of the house and is sheathed in black curtain – meaning you could step out of the bathroom smack dab into a busser bringing a tray of glasses to the dishwasher. i’m suprised i haven’t witnessed any accidents.

  10. Tim L says

    On 8 of 12 occasions, I’ve returned to order the razor clams. Is this there therapy available for this obsession?

  11. Won't Go Back says

    A girlfriend and I went to have dinner and a cocktail one night, we did not have reservations and where seated in the bar. No problem until we where asked by the hostess to leave. Her reasoning was that there where a lot of people waiting and she needed the table. We had been seated for approximately an hour and twenty minutes at this time. We certainly weren’t offered dessert but then it looks like we didn’t miss anything. All I can say about this place is there are a lot of great restaurants with great cocktails in Portland, spend your money elsewhere. I am particularly disappointed because I live in the neighborhood and really love to support my local spots!

  12. Stefan says

    My wife and I ate at Ciao Vito a few weeks ago and were truly dissapointed. This was also a surprise, as it has been one of our neighborhood favorites since it opened (we’ve been at least 8times). It was a Friday – we sat at the bar; always fun. We each ordered dishes that we were familiar with: Pasta Bolognese & Eggplant melanzana. Both tasted as though a junior chef had thrown them together at the last minute; no flavors. The eggplant was smothered in half melted cheese; also lacking any personality.(The antipasti della casa was a standout, however) Although I’ve never eaten there; I’d say it was on par with Olive Garden (at a much higher price).
    I spoke to Vito personally and he just shrugged his shoulders. Not exactly the kind of customer concern that you might expect…..

    Perhaps its the popularity of the restaurant, the sultry sophisticated atmosphere, or that Alberta street is now a bit of a destination. I highly doubt we’ll go back given all of the other dining options in PDX.

  13. sasha kaplan says

    I agree Ciao Vito is not worth the money. There are too many great places to indulge in a good meal in Portland to bother with Ciao Vito
    I was pleasantly surprised at how good the food was at Jimmy Maks alst night. I had gone for the music of course. I ordered the signature pasta dish- linguine with feta sundried tomatoes, zuchinni, lots of garlic and herbs, all delish. Drinks were surprisingly dull and over priced though. The music was stellar, naturally.

  14. William Hertling says

    Since moving to the Alberta area in September 2006, we’ve been to Ciao Vito about a dozen times. The highlight for me was a unique calamari dish that was cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with a variety of vegetables. It’s a little vague now in my memory now, as it was probably six months ago, but I would definite rank it as one of my top two or three culinary experiences. Beyond that, I’ve found Ciao Vito to be consistently enjoyable, although I would agree that some nights desserts can be a shortcoming. (I’m further limited by having to avoid any dairy-rich desserts, which usually means at most one or two options.)

    For every-day dining, Ciao Vito is on the expensive side. But their happy hour menu (available every day from 4pm to 6pm) is a bargain, with a number of great choices, including the Spaghetti Agli’ olio, which I find to be outstanding, and worth the trip all by itself.

    I’m surprised to read so many negative comments here given that I’ve had a great dinner every time I’ve gone. I also notice most of those comments are more than a year ago, so I wonder there have been some changes at Ciao Vito that might account for the difference between my experiences and those older experiences.

    Will

  15. PDXGal says

    Vito is a friend my husband’s from when Vito was a chef at Higgin’s, and I have been aware for quite some time of his huge commitment to cooking, his restaurant, and as an early resident of the Alberta district of Northeast Portland – before it became fashionable. He helped to anchor that street and to bring customers in who enjoy quality dining.

    There are more choices for dining now, but Ciao Vito will always be at the top in my mind both for atmosphere and careful attention to menu items. Also, their Spanish Coffee and hamburger are my favorites city wide!

  16. Amoureuse says

    Went to Ciao Vito with my significiant other on Tuesday night. We hadnt been on a long time. BOY HAS THIS PLACE GOTTEN BETTER! First of all we were greeted with a warm, yet respectful, ” hello & welcome ” Asian guy ( who we found out later used to work with Vito at Higgins – we remembered him, always wore cool neckties ) sat at a small two top ( hate the tables at Ciao – too small , also the dining room is too dark – hard to read the wine list) But back to what counts – The FOOD.

    Started with the prawn & mushroom bundles ( cartochio sp? ) and a wonderful order of fried calamari – HOT and great quality calamari.
    The cartochio was delicious.
    My S/O had the sugo of pork – too much for her to eat. Awesome flavors, came to the table steaming hot on a hot plate. Love their polenta cakes that they serve the pork with. I had the linguini with clams – WOW had to be over 2 dozen clams, hot, garlicky, just a touch of red pepper. Best I have had in a long time.
    We split a hot fudge sundae for the last sweet course. Whats to mess up? vanilla gelato with Valrohna chocolate.
    We thought maybe there was new ownership. This asian guy was greeting at the door, answering phones, delivering food, bussing tables, glad handing VIP’s . When we asked him if he bought the business he said no. ” I just work the door.” and said he knew Vito from Higgins. Or server, Jill was great, but we remember her from Tuscany Grill. No frills with Jill, just good decent service.
    On top of good hot food, I saw Naomi from Beast, and Monique from Castagna eating there. That let me know that if other chefs in town are eating there, it must be okay. Place wasnt too busy 40 people total. Maybe I caought it on a good night. Friends told me they waited 45 minutes for a 7:30 reservation on a busy Friday night. THey actually had a horrible meal. We went on a whim ( near area ) and were happy we did.

  17. lilhuna says

    We gave it a 2nd try last week. The food was quite good, but the service was a bit rough. I find the host to be quite brusque – not mean exactly, but lacking warmth, which is what I generally expect in a host.

    Also, we had waited for 30 minutes for a table, so when we sat down, I asked the first person who came to the table if she could throw in an order for the flatbread. Turns out, she was “only” a busser, and the waiter actually chided me for doing so. He said, “You need to put all the orders through me”. Snap!

  18. TooMuchSakeMan says

    I’ve only been once, mid-week on an only semi-busy night, but it made quite a good impression on me. I loved the sugo of pork. Great flavor with mounds of pork which fell apart it was so tender. I look forward to going back. Hopefully it’ll be more consistent than some of you testify.

    Service was a touch slow, though. But friendly.

  19. Katrus says

    I went here last weekend with some friends after a bit of hesitation due to the very mixed reviews I’d seen from multiple different sources. But since I couldn’t find any recent reviews I knew I was essentially going in blind but hopeful. I ended up being very disappointed with our dinner and wished I had chosen the other dining option available to me that night. The wait staff, while being really nice and earnest in their efforts, seem awkward and stiff. I actually thought it was a little weird. My husband and I shared some calamari for an appetizer and I wished I would have had my own order due to how small it was. Not that I was expecting chain restaurant sized portions or anything, but a little bigger would have been nice. But the worst part was the skirt steak I ordered for an entree. It was so tough that I was swallowing it mostly whole because no amount of chewing would break it down. I ordered it medium rare too, so it’s not like it was that way due to being over cooked. It was a good size portion of meat, but when it’s that tough having a lot is not a good thing. The sides that came with it, mashed potatoes and broccoli, were good, but standard. The only highlight was the dessert which was their version of an ice cream sundae. Very yummy, but not enough to go back for just that. With my opportunities to eat at nicer restaurants dwindling these days, I would definitely not willingly waste a precious night out on this place again.

    Just wanted to add some info since it had been so long since anyone else had!

  20. Stefanie says

    My husband and I have been several times over the last few years. While my husband really likes it (with the exception of being too salty), I want to like it, but can’t. The food has always tasted good, though entirely too salty (and I LOVE salt), but the problem is I always leave with stomach cramps. The food is too oily and I can’t seem to take it. I happens with everything, the sugo of pork, the spinach and polenta, anything braised. I’m not sure why (because I can handle oily foods at other places), so we’ve had to stop going, which is unfortunate because I’ve always liked their food and service.

    We’ve never had a problem getting a table (though we were always on time when we made a reservation). Their head waiter has always had fantastic wine recommendations for us, within a reasonable price range.

  21. SL says

    I tired Cafe Vito for my Birthday last fall. We had reservations, but when we came a few minutes early, the hostess tried to seat my family, including my 13 year old daughter at the bar. A lot of people mistake my daughter for 16, but mistaking a 13 year old for 21? Good luck at keeping a liquor license.

    At first our service was decent, and the calamari appetizer was fine and a reasonable amount. I had the pork chop with dinner, it was one of the best pork chops I’ve ever had, though the tablespoon sized portion of the sides were disappointing, because they tasted wonderful, but the quantity was only a tiny taste.

    Service was still OK at this point. Then came dessert. It was a cold November evening, and most of the desserts were gelato, just what I want in cold weather, Not! No cake or pie, so I went with the apple crisp, even though they said it was made of heirloom apples, but then they named braeburn as an heirloom apple. Braeburn apples are a newer variety, developed in New Zealand in the 1970s. That should have been a red flag of trouble ahead, but I was impressed enough by the pork chop to give it a try. The description of the crisp was heavenly, but what was set before me at the table looked more like a sad tiny maybe 1/4cup of breakfast yogurt topping spread on the bottom of a bowl to look like it was more, with a tablespoon of gelato in the middle. I couldn’t help myself, and I said “That’s apple crisp?”, then the waitress disappeared as soon as she dropped of the desserts. The Apple Crisp has no cripness what so ever, it was gummy, flavorless, and pathetic. It was little cubes of apple overcooked with a weird chewy tasteless oatmeal/nut topping that was not at all sweet. It had an expand in your mouth on the way to gagging quality. I ate a couple of bites and was throughly repelled, so I finally just ate the vanilla gelato, which was OK. I took the rest of the apple “crisp” home to feed to my chickens. My chickens thought the apple “crisp” was great, but then chickens only have 24 taste buds.

    We has a heck of a time getting a to go box and our check, the waitress refused to come to our table until we caught another waitress walking by our table and asked her for our check and a take home box. We will never go back to Cafe Vito again, the meal was so uneven and I was underwhelmed by the staff. Cafe Vito is also horribly noisy.

  22. ron bucci says

    My wife and I have NEVER had a bad meal at Caio Vito’s . We’re Italian and have been raised on highly seasoned food. I would guess that the biggest difference with some of the comments I’m reading is that a lot of them would rather have your food be more bland than spicy. The more garlic the more we love it.
    I do hope you’ll post this positive comment because by reading the ones above it looks like the several of the posters would rather post something bad as if they were written by a local competitor. May not be true but it sure reads that way. One nice thing about the internet is it can be just as good as it is bad for any business.I’m a firm believer that it’s nice to be important but more important to be nice and if I can’t say something good about someone or something I won’t say anything at all. Keep up the great work Vito and we’ll keep coming back for more of your wonderful Italian food that we love highly seasoned.
    Ron

  23. Mary Prolactin says

    This place is so fantastic, We really enjoy it so very much. In a way it sort of reminds us of Kutchie Pelaez’s Kutcharitaville Cafe with all his World Famous Fantastic Foods, like those Goody Goody cheese burgers, the famous prime ribs and the Best key lime pie in the world. Did any of your chefs attend the U of K? The University of Kutcharitaville. With all the great foods you serve here at Caio Italian, surely someone here must have. Please keep up the great work. It’s fantastic here……Mary

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