Ciao Bella, Ti Amo

Ciao Bella may not be playing in the big leagues with Italian heavy hitters, but out in the minors of the first-ring suburbs it is kicking major keester.

Ciao Bella
3501 Minnesota Dr. (France Avenue and I-494), Bloomington; 841-1000

Ciao Bella has exquisite lighting. Swirly-glass tubes over the bar are held up by sculpted iron hands that silhouette against the light in a striking, nearly surreal way. Lamps like big, goopy meringue drops hang over the pizza station. Recessed, ceiling-aimed bulbs are tucked into every nook and cranny. In the bathrooms the two pink art-glass lights that flank the mirror look like big aroused nipples, and seem to symbolize the undulating, sexy nature of the space. Every table boasts a little golden beaded lamp which casts a rosy, flattering glow on diners. Sitting in the midst of all this diffuse, elegant light you simply look marvelous.

Which is important, because you won't be able to hear a thing. The basketball-court-sized central room is separated from the open kitchen by a wood-burning oven and a couple of gigantic open doorways that funnel kitchen noise right to the dining room. Meanwhile there's always a hubbub in the front bar, and shouts and whoops ricochet off the marble floors and metal room dividers in such a way that when Ciao Bella is packed--as it is every single night from 7 to 10 and Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 11--you can only be heard by either shouting or placing your mouth directly in the ear of your dining companion.

But this acoustical horror is actually a big part of Ciao Bella's charm. When you're in the thick of it, as I was at 10 one Friday night, you'll see that everyone in the room is either shouting and gesturing enthusiastically, or bowing heads together in intimate discussion. Which reminded me of an interview I saw once with William Shatner. He was talking about the time he met Koko, the sign-language-proficient gorilla.

To get over his fear of the enormous animal, he used an old actor's trick: "I love you, Koko," said Captain Kirk. "I love you, Koko. I love you, Koko." And as he said it his body expressed it and then his mind believed it. And the gorilla responded, lovingly.

Likewise, when you go to Ciao Bella you have to yell enthusiastically or whisper intimately, and your body follows along: You're shouting excitedly, and you feel excited. You whisper intimately, and you feel all snuggly. As an extra bonus the people you're with look really swell because of the lighting, and so you feel more glamorous shouting and whispering to these lookers. At least that's why I think people are packing Ciao Bella, because it certainly isn't for the food.

Not that the food is uniformly bad. About one out of every five dishes turns out to be very good, and the chef's random ability to do things well is baffling. Consider the mussels. The appetizer ($6.95) is a generous pound-plus of the shimmering black beauties, bathed in a subtle saffron tomato sauce and tossed with shreds of fresh basil. Every time I ordered the mussels, both alone and in the linguini with mussels ($11.95), they arrived hot, perfectly tender, meaty, sea-scented, subtly smoky from the wood oven, and generally astonishing--especially considering that mussels are not easy to cook, turning to rubber if you fail to pay attention for an instant.

On the other hand, Minestrone soup is very easy. So why is Ciao Bella's minestra ($3.95) a salty mess so packed with crumbled sausage it has the consistency of pasta sauce? Salt also ruins a grilled filet mignon ($20.95) that comes in a brine-like sauce. A lamb shank braised in chianti ($16.95) has the arid texture of a State Fair turkey drumstick--puzzling, considering that to braise means to cook slowly with liquid, so that tough meat fibers are broken down and made tender. How could anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of cooking let a bronzed, dry piece of lamb get by?

Yet inexplicably at the same meal a mixed-herb marinated salmon filet ($15.95) was another real accomplishment, perfectly grilled and wonderfully flavored. I don't have any idea of how this could be, and I don't have any faith that on another night the salmon will be bad and the filet mignon good. I don't see much rhyme or reason in what comes out of Ciao Bella's kitchen except this: The mussels are always good and the bread basket is always bad. Sweet, cold squares of a Wonder Bread-like ciabatta and an uninspiring French loaf left me perplexed: Why have that big wood-fired oven if not to bake bread?

Then I realized it's there to confuse us with pizzas--another Ciao Bella game of chance. On two visits the pizza crusts I tried were sugary, doughy, gummy and icky, leaving me wondering: "Is it delivery or is it DiGiorno?" On the third visit my crust was scrupulously thin and perfectly crispy; the edges were full of big, handsome bubbles, and the pizza tasted smoky, earthy, fantastic. On my first visit I tried the wild mushroom pizza ($9.95) and was convinced that the gelatinous, salty, tasteless topping came from a can. On my third visit the mushrooms were fresh, had a nice springy texture, were perfectly married to the subtly spicy sauce, and only benefited from quick roasting in the high heat of the wood fire. Go figure.

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