Italian restaurants these days often fall into one of two categories: old-school red-sauce joints or upscale modern.
Roseville's Ciao, however, defies that kind of easy classification. Instead, the modest place strives to replicate the calming air and delicious fare of that favorite trattoria you discovered on your vacation abroad.
The restaurant sprang from a partnership between executive chef Marc Riedel (formely of Rio City Café) and co-owner Miranda Mulgeci. The two paired up to open Ciao with the goal of showcasing fresh, authentic Italian cooking, which Mulgeci, who hails from Tuscany, missed after moving to the United States with her family. Their new restaurant opened in January in a space formerly occupied by the Hawaiian-themed Ginger’s.
Mulgeci’s origin shows on the wine list, deep in Italian wines, especially Chianti. She’s a strong and welcoming presence in the front of the house, providing helpful guidance about what to drink and visiting every table.
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Ciao’s logo may sport an insouciant exclamation point formed from an upside-down wine bottle hovering over a glass, but for the most part the restaurant is an earnest but not stuffy take on the flavors of Italy. It occupies a prime, if slightly cavernous, corner location in the Roseville shopping center, Palisades Plaza, which also houses the new Range Kitchen & Tap.
More independent dining coming to Roseville is good news for residents in the Placer County suburbs, and Ciao also represents a departure from some of the flashy, splashy places that have made up much of the area's dining scene. Ciao has a sizable bar and high ceilings, but it feels modest and the opposite of trendy, with quaint wineglass light fixtures and a throwback color scheme of black and red. A Ducati motorcycle parked at the entrance, however, provides an anchor point for those colors.
Some items on the menu feel a little throwback as well. Sundried tomatoes, for instance, make an appearance, as does '80s-favorite tiramisu. Those chasing the latest trends might feel skeptical to see these bygone fads pop up, but don’t forget: There’s a reason those items got popular in the first place.
The sundried tomatoes, for instance, provided a sweet and earthy grounding for a grilled chicken sandwich served with goat cheese on a toasty ciabatta roll. It wasn’t an earth-shattering dish, but it was a hearty, pleasing lunch, especially with its side salad, featuring a balanced, herby Italian dressing and fresh, crunchy croutons.
Salads generally are a good bet at Ciao, with an ultra-classic Caesar and a just-like-Italy caprese both shining. The latter will shine even more when summer brings better tomatoes.
Open each weekday at 11 a.m., Ciao is a solid spot for Roseville workers who have a little extra time for lunch. In addition to sandwiches and salads, the menu offers a range of pastas (also available at dinner, for a few more dollars) as well as burgers. The lamb burger, thick and juicy with a toasty bun and the snap of pickled red onions, was a winner. Fries on the side, however, were dark golden but limp.
Pastas are made in house, with the same list of dishes found at both lunch and dinner. The pappardelle, which I tried in two dishes, was cooked just a shade past the preferred al dente. These wide, flat ribbons were a great complement to a meaty, rich house ragù, but swam in an odd dish with calabrese sausage and a sauce that was too thin and brothy for my taste.
That broth, moreover, had an elusive aromatic note that I finally (after many sips) pegged as tasting like star anise. That’s a flavor I love in pho, but here it clashed with the Italianate spicy sausage with fennel seeds and wild mushrooms.
Spaghetti with clams, on the other hand, was a more straightforward hit, garlicky and lemony, with perfectly cooked pasta.
If you dine with children, make sure they order the pasta alfredo, available only on the kids menu. Creamy, rich and redolent of Parmesan, it was scrumptious, and I kept sneaking bites from my daughter’s bowl of housemade penne.
Among the appetizers, the clear standout was polenta profumo del bosco — crunchy fried triangles of soft-inside polenta with a bright corn flavor, topped with intensely woodsy mushrooms cooked in cream. Carpaccio di tonno — thin slices of ahi counterpointed by capers, olive oil and peppery arugula — was clean, simple and very good.
A lump crab cake with bright fennel and citrus had a nice oceanic flavor but a mushy texture. Calamari and shrimp fritto, likewise, was marred by inadequate frying, and left a greasy slick at the bottom of the bowl. Also, I love fried lemon slices, but at Ciao they were too thick. To get their snap and not have bitterness overwhelm, they have to be cut paper thin.
Entrees likewise were a mixed bag. Rack of lamb, the priciest dish on the menu at $38, earned its price tag with a majestic portion, a savory rosemary jus, and tender, flavorful meat.
On the other hand, a salmon dish was a tad chalky, cooked just past the perfect point of moistness, despite a good crisp on the skin. But more importantly, the salmon couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a refreshing spring-summer dish (as suggested by the citrus-fennel slaw with sparks of bright red Fresno chiles) or a heartier winter one (the fish was placed on a bed wilted spinach and hefty lardons). But this kind of conceptual confusion seemed to be an exception rather than the rule with the entrees.
Oddly, there’s no printed dessert menu, despite several selections, including an ultra-creamy and gorgeous tiramisu that revived my faith in that much-abused, once-trendy dessert. Gooey banoffee pudding was a bit of an outlier, reading more English than Italian, but its caramel pudding and thick layer of sweet cookie crumbs were hard to resist. And the chocolate crepe with the hazelnut flavor of Nutella was a fulfilling, over-the-top treat.
My favorite sweet, however, was the restrained affogatto — a shot of espresso poured over vanilla gelato. (Gelato is supplied by Sacramento’s Devine, according to our server.) The bitter espresso swirls with the rich cream for a reviving finish to the meal.
Ciao is at its best when it hits simple grace notes like this, as the kitchen does with much of its cooking. It falters when it tries too hard to augment classic ingredients and flavors. If you gravitate toward dishes you would find on a menu in Italy, though, Ciao offers an unpretentious, enjoyable dining experience, refreshingly free of fuss and flash.
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
1410 East Roseville Parkway, Roseville; 916-782-0404; www.ciaoroseville.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.
Beverage options: Wine and beer are available, with a strong emphasis on Italian wines and a wide selection of wines by the glass. Coffee drinkers, don’t miss the excellent espresso.
Vegetarian friendly: There are some vegetarian salads and pastas, though it’s not a focus.
Gluten-free options: Yes. Pasta dishes are available with gluten-free pasta upon request, and several entrees are gluten free. (Gluten-free pasta is not made in house.)
Noise levels: Modest, though the dining room was not full on our visits. The high ceilings and hard surfaces might echo more with a crowd.
Ambiance: There’s a bit of a throwback, '80s-ish look to the black and red interior, with industrial touches like exposed lighting and cool wineglass fixtures. The space, at the corner of a sprawling Roseville shopping center, feels big, but also is welcoming and warm.
Despite its jaunty name, Ciao has a soothing air, offering mostly solid and pleasing Italian fare in a setting that reads as a little dated but comfortable. It’s a good addition to the suburban dining landscape.
Straightforward Italian dishes like spaghetti with clams, caprese salad and a killer fried polenta appetizer with an intense mushroom sauce are winners. Desserts are also a strength. Some dishes that stray from the classics, such as a salmon entrée or brothy calabrese sausage pasta, are less successful.
Service on occasion can be an odd combination of slow and overly solicitous. Most servers, however, are kind and congenial, and co-owner Mulgeci is a steadying hand.
Dishes can be a bit on the pricy side ($8-18 for appetizers, $17-38 for entrees). Quality, however, is high and portions large.