Monday, July 20, 2009
There are certain signs that you can recognize as harbingers of great Italian food. Men greeting each other with hugs upon entering Ciao Cristina was a very good sign, as was the lyrical sound of Italian being spoken by nearby diners.
The menu is standard, everyday Italian fare -- panini, pizza, and pasta. But upon closer inspection, the pizza is NY/Neopolitan style, the lasagne is pastisso, and the panini are stuffed with fillings like bresaola, prosciutto and capiciolla (gabagool, for you Sopranos fans). The room is packed, the men are hugging, the food is flying past, and the pizza is practically paperthin. This is definitely not your standard, everyday Italian cafe. Ciao Cristina is a family-run restaurant whose dedication to the food and love for people comes through in every dish.
You have probably passed the old building that houses Ciao Cristina on Barham traveling between Hollywood and the valley and not even noticed it. It is easy to get distracted by the gigantic Warners Brothers TV posters and insane new glow-in-the-dark mural of The Superfriends and Daffy Duck. The location was previously occupied by Que's River Bar, where rumor had it the "special of the house" was more of a happy ending than a happy hour.
Husband and wife team, Cristina and Alan Donovan opened the bar/pizzaria/tavola calda just a few months ago, and there are already crowds out the door. They certainly have the chops needed to take on their first venture. Cristina started out as a pastry chef, honing her craft in kitchens that included The Beverly Hilton. Venice-born Cristina learned how to make Italian food not in a culinary school, but at her mother's knee. Interestingly, her family had booked passage to the United States on the Andrea Dora, but her mother changed her mind at the last minute to sail out of Venice instead of Genoa. Alan's professional life has been varied, including working as an airline pilot. he is a certified "Verace Pizziolo Neopolitino".
The warm interior, designed by Alicia St John is subtly influenced by the Italian comedie del arte. The building was refurbished green, recycling as many of the original elements as possible, and adding environmentally-friendly air-conditioning and heating. Although the bare tables and wooden chairs do not seem to invite lingering, one can't help but fall into easy conversation with the owners, the employees, their friends, and even people standing in line for gelato. It is already a neighborhood joint.
The paninis are more filling than bread, an exciting rarity. The prosciutto stuffed into one of the paninis is an embarassment of riches. The Salume, which includes a variety of meats including salami and capicolla oozes with melting mortadella.
The soups are house-made, and the Zuppa di Pesce, served only on Fridays and Saturdays, is worth a special trip to the restaurant. The rustic tomato soup thick with bits of cod is flavorful and comforting. Just like you wish mama used to make.
The giant NY-style pizza is barely contained by the takeout box, and the ends of the crust curve up at the sides to fit. The margherita is traditional, and delicious with fresh mozzarella and basil. It is so thin it almost has to be folded in half and eaten New York-style.
Attention and care is put into even the side dishes. The polenta is addictive, and made me realize everyone else has been making it wrong all of these years. Paninis are served with house-made potato chips or an organic salad, and both are good choices.
With a former pastry chef at the helm, the desserts at Ciao Cristina are heaven. The cannoli is rich and smooth with whispers of chocolate and candied fruit. The gelato is from Beto's in Arizona, a family company. It is smooth, creamy and refreshing.
The restaurant also serves natural, antibiotic and hormone-free chicken, organic greens like wild arugala, and is certified by The Green Reataurant Association as a green restaurant. The only other restaurants in Los Angeles that are GRA certified green are Alcove, Le Pain Quotidien and Mozza. Ciao Cristina purifies their own water, "makes" their own sparkling water, and serves organic wines and vodka. Their takeout containers are compostable, and they don't use foam or plastic bags.
Ciao Cristina has a full bar, with 14 beers on tap and a signature martini, the "Ca' d'Oro" flecked with gold. There are a variety of interesting nonalcoholic beverages, including espresso, naturally.
Ciao Cristina is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and I have a feeling we will all be hugging the owner at the door ourselves in no time.
4201 W Olive Ave Burbank, CA 91505