Ciao Bello is the latest creation from the minds of Tony and Jeff Vallone, the father and son team who have become legends in Houston's culinary scene. Our foodie friends were abuzz when word of this new establishment leaked out, and we decided not to wait to check it out.
(With most restaurants, giving 'em a couple of weeks to sort things out is prudent, but knowing Tony Vallone, the staff will be ready and on their game before the first customer walks in the door.)
We scored a table late on a Friday night (no luck at all the previous weekend) and zipped over to the San Felipe location, ready to experience the food.
We walked in to a crowded, bustling restaurant, and were immediately seated in the dining room. Tall and airy, modern without being stuffy, the room buzzed with energy. There were no empty tables, even at this lateish hour, and the waiters were constantly in motion. The energy of the room reminded me of the Grotto in its heydey.
But let's talk food. We feel that the heart of any Italian restaurant is its pasta, so we sampled several.
First up was the Agnolotti di Zucca. Delicate, handmade, thin pasta pillows filled with butternut squash, the dish was finished with a light, creamy sage essence. This dish balanced sweet and savory with a deft touch. We've often found this sort of ravioli to be cloyingly sweet, but the Vallone kitchen avoided this misstep with deftness rare in a restaurant open a year, much less one open a week. One of us declared this the best example of this dish she's ever tried.
Next was the Osso Buco Ravioli. A bolder flavor, the amazingly tender meat was infused with an earthy flavor that was bold but not overpowering. The richness was impressive; without a doubt we will order this dish again.
Our final pasta dish was a suggestion from Jeff Vallone - the Rigatoni Bolognese. We were pleased by the smooth combination of the beef and tomato flavors, and the undertones of pancetta and onions were spectacularly balanced. This is perhaps the most complex and interesting Bolognese sauce we can remember sampling.
Veering away from the pasta, our next dish was the fascinating Cuscinetti. Plump chicken breasts stuffed with Italian sausage, spinach, and fontina, this dish seemed deceptively simple until the second or third bite, then the boldness of the sausage (with nice hints of fennel) balanced out the mild, tender chicken and the smooth fontina, the spinach adding a very slightly acidic bite to the mix. Our favorite dish of the night.
Dessert was an apple crostata, light and understated, and something were were barely able to finish.
An important note: We were impressed by the reasonable prices of the dishes we ordered. No item approached $20, which made our mix-and-match approach to dining surprisingly affordable.
We have a new favorite Italian spot in Houston. We'll be back again soon.
Ciao Bello. 5161 San Felipe. Houston, TX 77056. (713) 960-0333