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Cibo

Sins of omission and commission mar a menu that is traditional, but not fusty.

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Bucitini de Mare with local Fede pasta - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL

It was a forehead-slapping moment: Until our Regent Square-dwelling friends pointed it out, we'd never noticed that one side of Braddock Avenue in that neighborhood houses all the bars, while the other side is a hot spot for BYOB restaurants. The reason is simple: The "restaurant" side is in Edgewood, which is dry, and the "bar" side is in Swissvale, which is not. 

And in general, we've noticed that BYOB restaurants tend to be a little more interesting. Again, the reason is simple: In the absence of the reliable income-generating engine of alcohol, the food must stand on its own.

All this added up to our being pretty excited when the space once occupied by a favorite bakery was renovated to house a little Italian restaurant on the BYOB side of Braddock Avenue. And we do mean little; before we walked in, we couldn't imagine more than a handful of tables where we'd once munched on cookies and scones. But with bakery cases and coolers removed, there was room for a dining room that was more intimate than crowded. It helped that the décor balanced classic and contemporary, with a sophisticated taupe-and-merlot color scheme and, instead of prints or paintings on the walls, what appeared to be painted, wall-mounted tabletops.

The restrained, one-page menu was mostly filled with traditional Italian fare, with an emphasis on pasta dishes. But at Cibo, tradition isn't fusty: Linguine vongole -- that is, with white clam sauce -- was made with leeks, veal scaloppini was served with forest mushrooms and peppers, and chicken was grilled with habañeros and served with spicy, tangy puttanesca sauce.

We started with a pair of appetizers and a salad apiece. Arancini -- rice and cheese balls -- are traditional in Italy, but still a new pleasure in the States, and Cibo's would be a tantalizing introduction for anyone. Sticky risotto was packed around a lump of mozzarella, then lightly breaded and roasted. The choice of roasting over frying worked to keep things light, albeit at the cost of some crunch, while Cibo's bright red, tomato-ey polpette sauce rendered the flavors summer-garden fresh. A more ubiquitous Italian appetizer, beans and greens, was oddly underseasoned -- it's usually a dish that can handle a generous hand with the salt shaker. But the ratio of creamy white beans to just-wilted, tender yet resilient escarole was spot-on, and the sprinkling of crispy pancetta chips lent a welcome third dimension to this classic dish.

The salads fell rather shorter of their marks. Angelique's arugula was fresh and peppery, bold enough to support toppings of crispy prosciutto and nutty parmesan, and garnished with candy-sweet grape tomatoes at their summer peak, but the dressing tasted like little else but oil. Meanwhile, Jason's Caesar salad tasted washed out, as if the romaine hadn't been adequately spun after rinsing, and the dressing again failed to assert itself. Anchovy filets of course provided all of the flavor one could ask for, but at the cost of balance. More of those beautiful grape tomatoes offered a nice, nontraditional touch, but a pair of kalamata olives was as overpoweringly briny as the anchovies.

Still optimistic, Jason looked forward to his vongole, made with what seemed to be fresh linguine, plenty of minced leeks and tiny clams the menu called "pasta neck." The meat, once extracted from a couple of dozen shells, disappeared into the bowl, and the overall effect was merely OK. But what spoiled the dish was the presence of grit from the leeks. Leeks are famously difficult to clean, but this is why home cooks order leeks out: so that a professional kitchen, with its paid help, can serve them grit-free.

Meanwhile, Angelique had been torn between the Penne Pasta Cibo -- sausage, onions, fennel and pine nuts in a parmesan cream sauce -- and grilled lamb served with "arugula pasta" in a garlic wine sauce. Our server's unsolicited remark that the former dish contained raisins steered her toward the latter -- Angelique is not a fan of raisins cooked in food -- only to discover, when the lamb dish was served, that it contained plenty of raisins, too. Bummer. "Arugula pasta" turned out to mean a bunch of chopped greens piled on top of the dish. But the four little lamb chops were tasty, and the zingy flavor of garlic layered over the robust notes of red wine and earthy pine nuts built up a satisfying flavor.

Dessert was, as it should be, a reward. Hazelnut Royale, composed of chocolate-drizzled hazelnut mousse on a hazelnut biscuit, was beautifully presented and decadently garnished. Better yet, its taste exceeded its appearance, the mousse creamy and deeply flavored atop a cookie that was crisp without being brittle.

So Cibo came through at the end, and we'd be remiss not to mention that a dining companion's lasagna was extraordinarily rich, sophisticated and satisfying. But several errors of omission, as well as of commission, stood between our meal and an effortlessly enjoyable experience.

Cibo
1103 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square. 412-871-5923
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 P.M.
Prices: Soup, salad and appetizers $7-11; entrees $17-24
Liquor:  BYOB

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