My bride’s birthday was last week, and I wanted to arrange a birthday dinner for her and the immediate family. One restaurant immediately came to mind: Ciao Bello, the upscale but casual family-oriented restaurant in Tanglewood owned by the Vallone family.
One thing I love about Ciao Bello is that their menu has items that appeal to everyone. If you’re a foodie, and want to be adventurous, they’ve got you covered. But if you’re just interested in a good meal, they do a good job with Italian favorites like chicken parmigiana.
Shortly after we were seated, our waiter came by with a precious amuse-bouche. A single butternut squash raviolo, glazed with a sage cream reduction. It’s my bride’s favorite dish, and for Valentine’s weekend, it was served with a twist – the housemade pasta was shaped into a heart.
I told my bride that the heart shape must have been created especially for her birthday. She gave me that look that tells me that she’s indulging me, but she devoured her raviolo and ordered more as her entree.
We were all pretty hungry, so we ordered a pizza for the table. We decide on one I’d never sampled, a classic with Italian sausage and peppers. It came out quickly, and our kids attacked it before I could snap a photo, which explains the missing slices.
We really enjoyed this pizza. The crust was thin and crispy, with just enough chewiness to keep things interesting. The sweet peppers, fresh basil, and chunks of Italian sausage combined into a mild, savory combination that was enjoyed by both the adults and kids. Even Alex loved the pizza; he is our 12-year-old pizza connoisseur who is quick to dismiss any pizza that’s too spicy or too bland.
I ordered an appetizer that I’d never tried; pork tenderloin carpaccio. The presentation was lush; the lightly cooked and seasoned pork was sliced thinly, topped with some mild arugula, shaved aged parmesan, roma tomatoes, then drizzled with a hint of the Vallone’s private labelled olive oil.
The overall impression of this dish was mild but complex. The dominant flavor was that of the parmesan; the fresh arugula added a nice, subtle crunch, and the tenderloin’s gently smoky flavor was more of an undertone.
Next up was the pasta, and I was drawn to something else I’d never sampled here: Bombolotti Amatriciana. The short, thick tubes of the mombolotti pasta were prepared al dente, and the signature Vallone Amatriciana sauce was a standout; the fresh tomatoes, bits of basil, and slightly crispy guanciale melded into a rich, tangy delight. Tony Vallone introduced me to this sauce many years ago the first time I shared a meal with him, and it’s one I never tire of.
After this hearty pasta, I had to select a light entree, so my eye was drawn to the seafood. Sea bass sounded like a good choice, and the waiter assured me that the chef was very happy with the fish that had flown in.
What came out was a firm, flaky sea bass steak, deftly cooked and topped with another Vallone classic, the Barolo wine reduction sauce. The fish was smooth, buttery, light and flavorful, and the robust tang of the Barolo reduction was a fantastic counterpoint to the creamy flavor of the fish. On the site was some nicely crunchy garlic-grilled rapini, adding another texture and the rich butter-garlic flavor that was a satisfying complement to the fish.
We weren’t surprised to enjoy this special occasion at Ciao Bello; ever since it’s opened it has become one of our family’s favorites. Three generations were able to each find something they really enjoyed on the menu, something that’s very important for a family event like this birthday dinner. As a bonus, the resident foodie was able to enjoy some new dishes that he’d not experienced before.
That’s a win in anybody’s book.
Ciao Bello – 5161 San Felipe – Houston 77056
713-960-0333 – CiaoBelloHouston.com