Editor's note: This week we introduce Suzanne Loudermilk as The Sun's dining critic. Suzanne has established a deep well of knowledge covering Baltimore and reviewing restaurants. Her criticism will make up a core component of The Sun's food and drinks coverage, alongside news and features from new dining reporter Sarah Meehan.
Before Harbor East and the surrounding neighborhoods became dining hot spots, the go-to place in Baltimore was Little Italy. Restaurants like Chiapparelli's, Sabatino's — I had my first teenage date there over a mound of spaghetti — and the old Vellegia's packed in city folk and suburbanites who felt they were safe going to the well-tended blocks on the edge of musty warehouses and wharves.
New kids like Aldo's, Dalesio's, Da Mimmo and Cafe Gia have entered the scene as the area's development replaced tugboats with top toques, but one stalwart — Ciao Bella — has been plodding along since 1991, quietly turning out worthy Italian standards.
The restaurant is as old-fashioned as the house on "All in the Family," but it's not stodgy. The walls are painted a warm goldenrod yellow with earthy brick walls and a fireplace giving charm to the decor. The drop ceiling is a welcome counterpoint to the industrial ductwork found in many bistros today. The crisp white cloths and black napkins give formality to the tables.
While we waited for guests, we sat at the small bar, where Chris, the genial bartender of the evening, suggested a glass of Montepulciano to kick off the evening. There are several Italian wines on the menu, but the list also includes bottles from other countries as well as beer and cocktails. The house sangria features a pleasantly dry red wine with several stemmed, bobbing cherries, making us feel like we were kids again begging the adults for a prized maraschino.
When we were seated in the dining room, our server, Charles, took over, gliding toward us like a man who has waited on tables forever. We ordered several of his recommendations, including the crab toast to start. The two slabs of thick garlic bread were lathered with lump crab imperial and mild provolone and christened with a sensuous cognac cream sauce. It was as rich and dreamy as it sounds.
The fried calamari, though, was disappointing. The lightly breaded squid rings and tentacles were too chewy and couldn't even be redeemed by the excellent marinara sauce, a house specialty that accompanied them.
The Caesar salad was a fine rendition with chilled romaine, strewn with olives, tomatoes and croutons and tumbled with a garlicky creamy dressing. The cold antipasto salad showcased a variety of cured meats and cheeses that were set like gems on a crown of field greens studded with olives, pepperoncini, tomatoes and juicy artichoke hearts.
Throughout our meal, diners were coming and going around us. But the flow was so fluid and quiet that we never felt interrupted or distracted from our own conversation. This is a great spot for anyone's first date or special occasion.
The pacing of our meal was commendable. Our entrees arrived at an appropriate interval after the first courses were whisked away. The shrimp fra diavolo starred a half-dozen plump Gulf shrimp nestled in a zingy marinara sauce that hugged a tangle of al dente linguine. Be prepared to take home leftovers. Our other portions were just as generous. The tender veal Marsala filled a dinner plate with delicious medallions of pounded meat that were marred, unfortunately, by a too-sweet reduction of the fortified Sicilian wine and mushrooms.
Other traditional dishes like eggplant Parmigiana and lasagna were expertly executed. The construction of the four-layer lasagna was similar to the artistry of a Smith Island cake, with each level as thin as possible. In this case, the delicate wide noodles were filled with meat, ricotta and tomato sauce and baked with provolone. The eggplant Parmigiana was treated as gently as its countryman with slices of the egg-battered, mild fruit — it really is — and provolone resting comfortably on a pool of the restaurant's signature marinara.
Desserts may seem like overkill, but they are light and fluffy enough to warrant a nibble. Our table of four decided to split the three choices of the evening — tiramisu, cannoli and pumpkin cheesecake — which are made off the premises. Our considerate waiter delivered them all on a colorful plate for us to share. We didn't indulge, but the chilled limoncello that he suggested sounded like an excellent way to end our dinner another time.
Ciao Bella — which means "Hello, Beautiful" — is overseen by Tony Gambino, the son of its founder and also billed as the restaurant's chef. On a recent evening, he made the rounds of the tables, dressed in black, greeting guests while sipping a tiny espresso. It's that kind of chumminess that gives the place its personality beyond the food.
As we stepped out into the night, Little Italy's main drag was alive with diners flitting among the many restaurants. Ciao Bella stands tall among them.