South Florida has two types of Italian restaurant: the upmarket ristorante with regional specialities aligned into indecipherable menu items that require a Google search, and their no-frills, red-sauce kinsmen that dole out the type of hearty, oleaginous fare any Sicilian grandmother would feel compelled to stuff every family member with.
Both — Italian staples and some modern reinventions — are offered at Ciao Cucina & Bar in Coconut Creek. The 6-month-old Italian eatery does everything from-scratch pastas and pizza, all in a lively, hipster-cool ambiance.
Taking the place of La Via Ristorante & Bar, Ciao occupies a large corner space at the Promenade in Coconut Creek, an outdoor enclave of shops, bars, and eateries that also houses Ethos Greek Bistro — owners George Pappas and Stratos Papachristopoulos' first restaurant, which opened in 2012.
Since its debut in March, Ciao has distinguished itself from the plaza's other dining destinations through its fashionable, Mediterranean-inspired approach to the gastropub, a sort of hip younger sibling to the duo's more established concept.
"Usually, Italian, Greek, or Mediterranean restaurants, although delicious, are cheesy or feel dated," Pappas says. "The number one complaint I'd hear over and over from my customers at Ethos was that they wished there was a restaurant of equal caliber nearby — a place with good food, affordable pricing, but that offered something just a little bit different."
The answer came with Ciao, a 5,000-square-foot restaurant that seats more than 200. The restaurant's name glows in a bright marquee at the rear of the spacious dining room, accented with other popular design features such as exposed wood panels and vintage light fixtures.
At the back, a view into the kitchen can be glimpsed through large windows that overlook a brick pizza oven and the restaurant's own glass-enclosed pasta studio, where diners can watch as their meal makes the sojourn from kitchen to plate.
Serving lunch and dinner daily, the restaurant boasts menus that are a collaborative effort from both the owners and the kitchen staff, who work together to ensure Ciao straddles the line between modern and traditional.
To encourage sharing, dishes span a wide range of sections, a way for guests to mix and match for a different dining experience every time, Pappas says. Starters, a dozen in all, take up the bulk of the page.
That section includes the most popular item on the menu — the Parmesan polenta fries. Not quite fries and not just polenta, the dish sees Italian cornmeal cooked into a thick porridge and shaped into hefty, torpedo-like sticks. Served four per order, it's straightforward comfort fare — cheesy polenta deep-fried until its outer layer hardens into a crisp shell. The dish is hearty and flavorful enough on its own, yet it arrives with a truffle-infused mayonnaise for dipping that's difficult to dismiss.
Neither American nor Italian, the classic French-Canadian dish poutine gets an equally indulgent riff — as though fries smothered with gravy and melted cheese weren't already gluttonous. Ciao's take is Pappas' interpretation of the classic Montreal staple, an ode to his time spent in the city — potato wedges served in a small cast-iron pan with a pool of short-rib gravy and a crown of melted Gruyère and shredded beef. It's not the poutine one would expect, but the ingredients are all there, the cheese lending a touch of earthy funk.
Ciao gets close to reinventing pizza and pasta, but only with the finishing touches. Handcrafted pies are said to be Neapolitan in style, with a doughy crust that bakes up thick and fluffy, with only a kiss of char from the kitchen's wood-burning oven.
Options range from the classic margherita and the American favorite "lover della carne" — with meatballs, coppa, and salami — to the more creative. The Morning Sunshine boasts an over-easy egg, arugula, bacon, leeks, and sour cream for a breakfast-inspired take on the Italian pie. The Underground is a bit tamer, with thin-sliced potato, Gruyère, and sweet onion.
Like many Italian eateries, Ciao is boastful of its house-made pasta, prepared in the kitchen's own pasta studio, a small room where guests can peek into a chef's atelier. Here, dough is rolled and stretched into a number of shapes, from fusilli to pappardelle.
The dish that offers the most surprise is the rigatoni — fat tubes of pasta that collapse under the weight of a dense, gravy-like, cream-based sauce accented with a tangled mass of braised short rib, mushrooms, and asparagus. It's not the standard, beef-studded red sauce often paired with cylindrical noodles, and that alone makes it worth the indulgence.
From there, a shortlist of mains covers everything from a dry-aged porterhouse to the classic Americanized chicken parmigiana. But if you ask him, Pappas will steer you toward his favorite dish on the menu: the dorade Portofino.
"A local-caught snapper or mahi is great, but for me there is nothing like the taste of fresh dorade," he says. "This is the taste of home I remember best."
A small Mediterranean fish, dorade has a tender white flesh that — when grilled, sautéed, or braised — produces a succulent, meaty flavor. To ensure the same experience he recalls from childhood, Pappas gets shipments of the fish delivered every other day. The dish arrives at the table with a fillet finished in a fragrant cioppino reduction and served over a bed of Swiss chard and pilaf-style rice.
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The Greeks end their meals with a glass or two of ouzo, but the Italians have their limoncello, and so does Ciao. A generations-old family recipe compliments of general manager Antonio Leone, this digestif differs from the one his family serves in Italy only in the lemons. The citrus is not the fist-size, tangy-sweet variation he often plucked straight from the tree near his home, but the recipe and the method are the same, resulting in a fiery-smooth liqueur that's the perfect end to any meal at Ciao. It's so popular the restaurant even bottles it for sale.
"Coconut Creek is a thriving community filled with locals and seasonal visitors," Pappas says. "We have a very close connection with our clientele at Ethos, and another restaurant has been just the thing to help cater to those loyal customers and locals. It's just what the area needed."
Ciao Cucina & Bar
4443 Lyons Rd., Coconut Creek; 954-601-1234; ciaocucina.com. Lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
- Polenta fries $7
- Poutine $10
- Underground pizza $12
- Rigatoni $19
- Dorade Portofino $21
- Limoncello $5