Ciao Bella, which had been tucked into a small space next to Kroger at Mendenhall and Sanderlin, made a big move last December. It not only relocated to a much larger space — the former LuLu Grille on Erin Drive — but with a much bigger kitchen at its disposal, it also greatly expanded its menu.
Previously, the menu consisted of pizza, salads, and a few pastas and seafood dishes. The new menu has nearly 30 entrees, among them such Italian classics as eggplant parmigiana, veal scaloppine, and stuffed ravioli. Also offered are steaks and several Greek dishes, including pastitsio and souvlaki, reflecting the heritage of the owners, Judd Tashie, David Tashie, and Paul Tashie.
The chef is Rick Saviori, who joined Ciao Bella in 2006 after stints at Grill 83 and various resorts and hotels in the U.S. and in northern Europe.
The owners have renovated the restaurant space that was LuLu Grille, unifying the little rooms that in the LuLu days made the place feel chopped up and discordant. Common paint and décor help the restaurant feel more cohesive, and play up the warm, casual neighborhood vibe that is Ciao Bella's great strength. In doing so, the management has retained the bar area and the attractive outdoor patio. Next door, the owners are opening Carmela's Little Italy, a shop with takeout and Italian groceries.
We visited the restaurant twice, and on our first trip were reminded of Ciao Bella's artistry with handmade pizza. The caprino version had lovely homemade thin crisp-chewy crust with plenty of goat and mozzarella cheeses, bits of artichoke heart, and sun-dried tomatoes. Just as delectable was pizza del pescatore, topped with mozzarella, Roma tomato slices, and pieces of shrimp and scallion. (The menu has 11 "gourmet" pizzas, plus the choose-your-own-topping variety.)
We also sampled from the pasta menu. The shrimp alla Toscana was snappy and fresh, with plenty of garlic, roasted peppers and artichokes, and pomodoro sauce over linguine. The shrimp were large and plentiful, but a bit overcooked. The crabcake ravioli consisted of an Old-Bay-infused crabmeat mixture inside large al dente ravioli pillows served with a creamy sauce.
For dessert we tried the Athenian custard pie, a Greek dessert that combined brittle fillo layers with a sweet syrup and smooth custard — a refreshing departure from the usual crème-brûlée-molten chocolate-key lime pie lineup. Other desserts on the menu include a molten chocolate cake with vanilla gelato, Italian cream torte, and cannoli.
Our second visit we concentrated on the appetizers and entrees. For starters, our server recommended the fried oysters, but I'm not sure why. They were competently crispy-fried with cornmeal coating, but several tasted fishy. The peppy remoulade was the best part of the dish. The stuffed mushrooms were okay but unexceptional, the stuffing a mild mixture of ground meat, cheeses, and proscuitto in garlic herb sauce.
As for our entrees, the catch of the day was blackened redfish, which was dredged in generic, salty seasoning and overcooked. Not terrible, but neither was it noteworthy. The veal scaloppine, prepared piccata style, was tender enough, but bitter with lemon peel and the sauce overly thick. Yanni's rack of lamb was interesting, cooked rare as ordered and spiked with a lemon-garlic marinade. Nearly all side dishes were good: Flavorful Italian spinach with the scaloppine, spanakopita with the lamb, and nice roasted potatoes. The exception was the strange, tough cake of polenta.
We also sampled the pasta primavera, al dente penne with a light white-wine sauce and bits of roasted peppers, capers, kalamata olives, and bits of zucchini and squash. (We should mention that the menu has changed since our visits, so some of these dishes may not be available by the time you read this.)
Ciao Bella has an extensive list of Italian and California wines, with most available by the glass and most bottles priced below $40. The restaurant also has domestic and imported beers on draft and in bottles, and a full bar.
The server on our first visit was helpful and attentive, providing details about the wine list and the food. The overall tone was casual but competent, and the one lapse was the arrival of our entrees when we had barely started eating our pizza appetizer. It was actually pretty surprising to get our entrees so quickly since the restaurant was packed that night. The management also gets extra points for bringing our daughter a ball of pizza dough (they call it "Italian Play-Doh"), which kept her happy and occupied for the entire meal.
The second night we chose a table on the pretty little patio, on one of those Memphis evenings that's perfect for al fresco dining. While the atmosphere was great, we were definitely in Siberia as far as the service was concerned. The beginning of the meal was fine, but after our appetizers arrived, we were all but forgotten. It took forever to get our main courses, making the meal so lengthy that we had to leave before dessert. Certainly a contrast with the service we experienced on our first visit.
The new Ciao Bella succeeds as an East Memphis neighborhood restaurant, with a friendly and happily bustling atmosphere and plenty of room for its many fans. It also looks good, since the renovation provides much-needed cohesion to the restaurant space that once housed LuLu Grille, and the menu offers something for everyone.
However, bigger is not necessarily better in terms of menu. Ciao Bella does great with the pizzas that are its traditional strength, and the pastas are consistently good. But while the addition of a large entrée and appetizer menu makes for more choices, the ones we tried in our admittedly limited sampling were not that memorable. The Yanni's Greek-style rack of lamb was the best thing we tried, and even that was no showstopper.
Our conclusion: Ciao Bella is definitely worth a visit, but stick to the pizzas and pasta, and if you want good service, sit indoors.