In Italy, an osteria is a modest establishment specializing in good, inexpensive wines and simple, well-prepared food -- that country's answer to the French bistro, you might say.
In recent years, restaurants billing themselves as osterie have cropped up in America, and some of these have remained true to the osteria's humble tradition. But many have followed in the footsteps of the Americanized bistro to become upscale establishments that no Italian would recognize as an osteria.
Ciao! Osteria, the first restaurant in the Triangle to call itself an osteria, neatly splits the difference.
The balancing act starts in the dining room and cozy upstairs bar, where soft lighting, tables draped in butcher paper over white linen, framed black and white prints of vintage movie stars on brick walls, and waiters in black ties set a mood that gracefully melds casual and elegant, Old World and New.
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Emptied and recorked wine bottles stand on the storefront windowsill, tally marks of convivial times already accumulated in the three-month-old restaurant.
The wine bottles serve as reminders of Ciao!'s claim to an osteria pedigree, a claim backed up by an all-Italian cellar whose two dozen or so offerings are as fairly priced as they are thoughtfully chosen. By-the-glass prices top out at $7.50 for four of the offerings, including a Zadetto prosecco I've seen elsewhere for $10.
Though wine is the main attraction at a traditional osteria, the food at Ciao! is worthy of equal billing. The menu, a mostly contemporary take on Mediterranean fare, is more ambitious than is customary for an osteria, but the rustic flavors and unpretentious presentation are true to the spirit of the genre.
Strictly authentic or not, the food rarely fails to delight -- which comes as no surprise, given that the chef is Alex Azzam, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris who has worked in numerous restaurants in Europe and America.
Order zucchini fritti for starters, and Azzam will win you over immediately with ribbons of zucchini so light and delicately crusted you half expect them to be carried away by the draft of a passing waiter. Shrimp limoncello, which serves up plump shellfish on a pale golden puddle of a citrusy, lightly sweet cream sauce, is another winning first-course option. Cream of asparagus soup, a recent soup du jour offering, was satisfying, too, though it would have benefited from more asparagus flavor.
Azzam is noted for his steaks, and deservedly so. His grilled rib-eye, aged and marinated in rosemary and sage, is tender and juicy, its beefy flavor nuanced ever so subtly by the herbs. The chef's presentation of tournedos, pairing twin filets with scampi whose impressive size lives up to their name, is also first-rate.
Grouper Romano is a rewarding seafood option, the moist flesh and Parmesan-tinged crust so delicate that the fish falls apart at the mere touch of a fork. Pollo Yandolino, which presents butter-soft chicken breast in a delicate lemon butter sauce punctuated with spinach, sun-dried tomato and lemon zest, walks a tightrope of contrasting flavors without so much as teetering.
And pastas, from fragile capellini with chicken, fresh tomato and basil to hearty rigatoni with salmon and portobellos in Gorgonzola cream sauce, are consistently al dente.
Azzam's attention to detail is evident in everything from chilled salad plates to house-baked breads to side dishes that are clearly more than an afterthought. He even roasts his own peppers, and makes a distinctive Parmesan risotto so firm it's served in scoops -- not my notion of ideal risotto, frankly, but reportedly popular.
Naturally, desserts are made in house, too, with options ranging from tiramisu to Belgian dark chocolate cheesecake. They're generally up to the chef's standards, too, though a recent order of pumpkin cheesecake was dry and stale.
Of course, you could always end your meal with a glass of dessert wine -- sweet and sparkly Banfi Rosa Regala, say, or a more complex Coppo Moscato. This is, after all, an osteria.