Feedbag - La Dolce Vita

Ciao Bella charms like a trip to the Old Country

This place totally reminds me of Florence, I whisper as we wait for the hostess. I spent a semester there in college, studying Italian and art history and getting fat on Italian food. "Are you serious?" ask my husband. He looks around and then looks at me like I'm crazy. Ciao Bella has a certain rustic charm, but it doesn't exactly scream Continental sophistication.

I'm completely serious, though. Something you pick up on after living for a few months in one of the world's most popular tourist destinations is that just about every restaurant you walk into is a tourist trap. They look just like every Midwestern vacationer pictured them: wax-encrusted Chianti bottles on the tables, low-beamed ceilings, a fireplace in the corner. That's what I mean when I say Ciao Bella reminds me of Italy.

But even at the worst of Italian tourist traps, the food can be amazing. I wouldn't go so far as to call Ciao Bella's culinary efforts amazing, but the menu of Italian classics is elegant, straightforward and free of unnecessary flourishes. An arugula salad tossed with lemon juice and olive oil and topped with shaves of Parmesan is simple, peppery perfection. Tender fried calamari bear little resemblance to the breaded rubber bands that pass for an appetizer on so many menus these days. A spicy arrabiata sauce lures more than just the calamari. Once they're gone, I tear off a hunk of fluffy bread and keep on dipping.

Veal saltimbocca, the classic dish of pounded veal cutlets wrapped around sage leaves and slices of Prosciutto, does less to impress me. The veal is tough to cut through, and a surprise in the center - melting fontina cheese - is unappetizing. Rosemary-roasted potatoes are a fine accompaniment (especially when swirled in the demi-glace from the saltimbocca), but spinach sauteed with garlic seems needs a healthy dose of salt.

One of Ciao Bella's signature dishes, Pasta Siciliana, jazzes up the standard penne-and-tomato sauce shuffle with chunks of smoky eggplant and a sprinkle of ricotta salata. Melting cubes of fresh mozzarella give the dish extra appeal, but the tangy flavor of the ricotta gets a bit lost in the mix. All the same, it's a crave-worthy dish, perfect for wintertime.

A dessert called tartufo - truffle in Italian - is nothing more than a scoop of chocolate ice cream surrounded by a hard chocolate shell. Bor-ing. Our server raved about the tiramisu, but is anyone still interested in tiramisu these days? I'm over it.

On the plus side: Ciao Bella is a terrific deal. There aren't many places in Buckhead where you can get a three-course meal for two with wine for less than $60. And nothing says romance like a wax-covered Chianti bottle. Ah, Florence.


Extra Helpings: Covering Brookhavn to Inman Park

ATL restaurants aid tsunami victimsOn Tuesday, Feb. 8, more than 90 restaurants in Atlanta will participate in Dine Out for Tsumani Relief. Each of the participating restaurants will donate 20 percent of the night's total sales to CARE USA, an Atlanta-based organization dedicated to disaster recovery and poverty relief programs. Check out www.dineoutfortsunamirelief.com for the most current list of restaurants.

Dionysian Delights
Kyma in Buckhead will host its third anniversary dinner celebration Thursday, Jan. 20. For the evening's festivities, Executive Chef Pano Karatassos has teamed up with Susanna Hoffman, one of the original owners of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of several cookbooks. For the anniversary dinner, Pano will prepare his favorite dishes from Hoffman's most recent cookbook, The Olive and the Caper. The five-course menu will be accompanied by Greek wine pairings. Hoffman will be on hand to greet guests, discuss Greek cuisine and sign cookbooks. $65 per person (wine pairings an additional $20). Live entertainment begins at 7 p.m. 3085 Piedmont Road. 404-262-0702. www.buckheadrestaurants.com

Noodling Around
Learn pasta making from the pros Monday, Jan. 24 at the Brookhaven Cook's Warehouse. Via Elisa owner and pasta goddess Elisa Gambino will teach the class, dubbed "A Saucy Affair," along with local culinary legend Gerry Klaskala. The class will cover fresh pastas and sauces and includes wine tastings sponsored by Sherlock's Wine Merchant. The entire class proceeds benefit Atlanta's Table, a project of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. 7-9 p.m. $65 per person. 4062 Peachtree Road. 404-892-3333. www.cookswarehouse.com

Culinary Adventuring
Sotto Sotto's "Tour of Italy" dinner series continues in 2005, starting with the Piedmont Region Tuesday, Jan. 25. The series explores Italian regional cuisines with a prix-fixe dinner on the fourth Tuesday of every month. The four-course menu is $39 per person. 313 N. Highland Ave. 404-523-6678. www.sottosottorestaurant.com??

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