Walking into Ciao Baby! on a rainy Saturday night, my wife Eliza and I were immediately charmed by the intimate Italian bistro ambience. The overall lighting scheme is kept soft and each table is spotlit by an individual hanging pendant lamp, suggesting a little aura of privacy and keeping the menus easily readable. Large blown up black and white photos on the wall harken back to a 1950’s, large-family sensibility. A large-scale chalkboard on the wall displays the evening’s specials from appetizers and entrees into the drinks and desserts.
As soon as we sat down, a small loaf of Italian bread, fresh from the oven arrived with a plate of olive oil for dipping. The sauce had a wide streak of balsamic vinegar running through it for sweetness, shreds of basil, a smattering of red pepper flakes, and a mound of freshly minced garlic perched in the center. Mixed together, the elements are fantastically potent and delicious. It’s a very firm handshake welcoming you to an Italian dinner.
The appetizers menu proclaims that their Stuffed Artichoke revives a lost art. The leaves of the artichoke are spread and stuffed with a mixture of garlic bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, herbs, and spices before baking in the oven. It sits in a pool of broth, infusing the deepest layers of stuffing with a Thanksgiving quality. Picking individual leaves and using them as spoons, the artichoke goes very well with leading Parmesan and garlic flavors.
The Ciao Baby! Burnt Pasta appetizer is really surprising. It’s a very traditional preparation of angel hair pasta, boiled, buttered, and covered with a light marinara sauce. The tangle of pasta is then upended into a frying pan and sautéed in butter until the top layer is crisp and partially blackened into a buttery pasta crust you break through to get to the softened noodles underneath. The crunchy char on top gives the dish a smoky robustness that alludes to a steak on a grill without any of the heavy meat.
Moving into their salad menu, we sampled the Very Chopped Salad. Like a picnic on the plate, this dish has all the light sweetness of a fruit salad without a single apple slice. The greens are chopped and mixed with diced celery, shredded carrots, red cabbage, red onion, cucumber, tomato, red pepper, and chilled pasta. Much of the sweetness comes from scattered toffee nuts that also bring a nice crunchy texture and a mango chardonnay dressing. Crumbles of Gorgonzola cheese introduce a nice thread of creaminess that stands out against the candied elements.
We got a chance to try the lighter side of angel hair preparation with their Grouper Franchese entrée. Flakey, tender grouper is whisked in flour and egg for a light breading and is sautéed in white wine, lemon, and capers. The fish filet sits atop a nest of angel hair pasta that beautifully absorbs the rich citrus elements of the sauce. It’s a delicate balance of fruity, buttery, and fulfilling thanks to the expertise apparent in the sauce.
Our final entrée brought the rich, hearty decadence so characteristic in mouth-watering Italian meals. The Stuffed Cubanelle Peppers takes large, sweet green peppers and stuffs them full of a slightly spicy, impeccably seasoned meatball filling, very Italian sausage in tone. The pepper is covered with melted mozzarella cheese, parsley, and herbs and drenched in a bright sherry marinara sauce. Between the two peppers is a treasure trove of pastina, adding a rice-like presence to the plate and soaking up as much of the delectable sauce as possible.
The arrival of dessert is a good time to mention the generous portion size of every dish that came to the table. In the case of the carrot cake, I think the word massive sums it up best. Four layers of cake, four layers of heavenly cream cheese frosting. This is a timeless slice of carrot cake, moist, rich, deliriously sweet, and extremely filling.
Over the couple of hours we spent in Ciao Baby!, we saw every kind of evening arrive at the tables around us. A large family was gathered around several tables pushed together for a birthday meal, we saw couples having dinner, two high school kids having a friends’ night out, and groups of grown-ups chatting while working their way through Ciao Baby!’s wall of wine.
On nights when there’s a wait, patrons receive a pager and are invited to head up the street to the Tip Top Tap, also owned by the proprietors of Ciao Baby!, where they can pass the time until dinner with cocktails, martinis, or craft beer while listening to live piano music.
Ciao Baby! is located at 232 E. Main Street in Barrington, 847-381-3555, ciaobabyonline.com.