Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m-3 p.m., 5-11 p.m.; Sat. 5-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $6-12; entrees, $17-30
Fare: Italian indulgence
Atmosphere: Decorator-catalog Italian
Liquor: Full bar
Before we went to Ciao Baby, we would have said that Pittsburgh needs another Italian restaurant like it needs well, let's just say that if Pittsburgh were a person, it would have an Italian restaurant-shaped crater in its cranium. And yet the proliferation continues, from redundant suburban pasta chains to red-sauce mom-and-pop shops to, once in awhile, something that makes us sit up and take notice of this venerable old cuisine once again. Chef Miro Fazio recently arrived in the latter category when he opened Ciao Baby just off Market Square.
With a big lipstick kiss on its sign, Ciao Baby promises that famous Italian passion, and we were seduced. With its wine- and olive-colored walls, twiney-viney metalwork and curvy cherrywood chairs, the interior is a subdued combination of classical and modern. It is elegant enough to inspire high expectations of the food without being intimidating. The menu boasts of classically prepared Italian fare both simple and complex: homemade pastas, hand-cut steaks and even homemade mozzarella.
Chef Fazio's flair was evident in our first appetizer, tonno tartara, raw tuna served in a martini glass over a bed of baby greens with capers and onions. The fish was tender and fresh, and a tangy squeeze of lemon provided counterpoint to its own subtle sweetness. Asperagi verdi seemed an ideal spring antipasti, and the simple preparation of straw-thin asparagus pieces tossed with gratinated butter and Parmesan cheese permitted the vegetable's seasonal brightness to shine. The only flaw was the presence of a number of woody stems.
Ciao Baby's entrée list has a higher proportion of meat, chicken and seafood dishes to pastas than your average Italian place, and we found many of them intriguing, from chicken wrapped in prosciutto, eggplant and mozzarella to scallops with shallots, smoked salmon and cognac cream sauce. But Jason could not resist the special osso bucco, which, our server boasted, spent four hours in the oven. The result was a fork-tender veal shank whose mildly meaty flavor shone. The bed of saffron risotto was oddly disappointing, with a strong mushroom flavor and soupy, not creamy, consistency.
Meanwhile, Angelique focused her attention on the homemade pasta dishes, deciding upon tricolor farfalle in vodka sauce with salmon, asparagus and goat cheese. Four substantial slices of fish -- cooked to pale pink perfection on the outside, left rosy and rare in the center -- reposed atop the generous bowl of pasta. The plum tomato sauce had a rustic, chunky texture and was finished with minced parsley and ground fresh parmesan. The asparagus added an earthy note, the goat cheese contributed a creamy richness, and the overall effect was thoughtful and balanced.
We also tasted the house's signature pasta, Ciao Baby gnocchi, served in a tangy, fresh-tasting tomato sauce with clams, shrimp, scallops and artichokes. Occasionally, a gnocchi turned out to be a half-clove of garlic, while the gnocchi themselves were excellent, tender dumplings with soft -- not gummy -- interiors.
When we saw that Ciao Baby's dessert menu featured four different chocolate cakes, we knew two things: We knew the pastry chef was the rare someone whose appreciation for cocoa-based desserts might rival Angelique's, and consequently we knew we had to break our tiramisu habit, at least for one night, and try one of those chocolate confections. Vesuvius cake was a mini-bundt ring so dark, it made the warm chocolate sauce drizzled over it look pale in comparison. It was both moist and airy, except for the interior, which was barely baked so that it oozed warm batter when we broke it with the edges of our forks. The gods of chocolate had spoken, and it was good.
As we relished Ciao Baby's homemade cooking, we were incredulous to overhear a nearby table discussing the relative merits of certain chain Italian restaurants located in the parking lots of certain suburban malls. We did not get to hear what our fellow diners thought of Ciao Baby, but if their experience was anything like ours, they'll never set foot in those other places again. Ciao Baby is what all the other Italian restaurants want to be; it's the real deal.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars