The name is a pun -- I'm not sure whether it's intentional. ("Ciao" as in Italian for "So long!" and "chow" as in "food.") But the dishes at this Mediterranean bistro are a little too chic to be called chow, so maybe it's pure chance.
Ciao has a good location, in a storefront in the historic district -- particularly convenient for visitors to Annapolis. The dining room is charming, with soft blue walls, tile floors, decorative pottery and fresh white cloths on the tables. A handsome, cherry-stained bar runs along one wall, but be warned that customers are allowed to smoke there.
Ciao's menu is a hodgepodge, but an appealing one. (Have you noticed that "Mediterranean" has become synonymous with "eclectic" in restaurant-ese?) Shrimp and corn quesadillas share space with Moroccan chicken, steak au poivre, Mediterranean meatloaf and almond-crusted trout. This is imaginative food, and beautifully presented food -- but not, it must be admitted, always the most successful food.
Take a first course of yellow and red tomatoes layered with fresh mozzarella, drizzled with basil-flavored oil and sprinkled with pine nuts. It shouldn't have been a surprise, I suppose, that in mid-June the tomatoes had very little flavor. You would do better with the Prince Edward Island mussels and their pleasant Italian plum tomato sauce, or the quesadillas filled with shrimp and corn. Their citrus aioli had plenty of zing.
That same garlicky, lemony mayonnaise enlivened the trout crusted with ground almonds. But hearty chunks of spicy sausage didn't complement the fish as well as the delicately bitter flavor of the braised broccoli raab.
Mediterranean meatloaf -- made of ground lamb and beef -- is Ciao's signature dish, our waiter told us. We loved its rich brown gravy with wild mushrooms, the pretty little new potatoes and the sauteed green beans on the side; but the meatloaf itself tasted a bit too much like leftovers.
Still, the only real disappointment was a dish that sounded so promising: fresh egg bucatini (a kind of pasta) with spinach, grilled chicken and roasted eggplant. It arrived piled in a too-small bowl, which meant it wasn't as attractive as the rest of our food, and the combination was oddly tasteless. I picked at it and filled up on the delicious warm focaccia that came with our dinners.
That evening a fruit soup was offered as either an appetizer or dessert. Pureed berries were swirled with cream and a bit of Chambord liqueur. Very nice, but a whole bowl of it was a bit much. It worked better as a sauce for the chocolate mousse cake. As an appetizer it wouldn't have worked at all; it was simply too sweet.
Best of all our desserts was the restaurant's tiramisu: moist and full of rich espresso flavor.
If I had to sum up our dinner at Ciao in one sentence, I'd say that this was an uneven meal that ended well. The setting is so pretty and the staff so friendly you probably won't be unhappy with your meal there, even if things aren't quite perfect. We certainly weren't.
Where: 51 West St., Annapolis
Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Sunday
Prices: Appetizers, $3.25-$9.95; entrees, $11.95-$20.95; major credit cards
' Call: 410-267-7912
Pub Date: 6/29/97