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At home at Ciao Baci 

Chef takes Hillcrest staple to new heights.

Walking through the doors of Ciao Baci feels almost like strolling into your neighbor's Hillcrest home for dinner. It's cozy and comfortable; it's dimly lit and has a kind of elegance about it. But don't let its humble size be mistaken for simplicity — it's no ordinary home. Since chef Jeff Owen took the reins in 2012, the restaurant has hit its stride and the level of execution and attention to detail with each dish is proof of talent lurking back in the kitchen. Ciao Baci has long been praised for its impressive wine list and imaginative cocktails, but with Owen at the helm, the cuisine deserves equal recognition.

The beginning of Owen's dinner menu touts a tantalizing tapas-style menu. Small plates and appetizers are designed to share — it's wise to dine with a group here in order to sample a larger assortment of plates. Ciao Baci's tantalizing assortment of cured, smoked and dry-aged meats, with its lavish foreign cheeses and slices of crunchy, crusty bread is not to be missed. We were partial to Ciao Baci's spicy coppa, an aged pork shoulder flavored with garlic and paprika, as well as the black pepper saucisson, a dry-cured pork sausage encrusted in black peppercorn. This pungent morsel of rich, fatty sausage made a wonderful addition to the plate. But all of these were overshadowed by the house rillette. A rillette is not something you lose your paycheck on while gallivanting in Las Vegas — it's a chopped meat dish (in our case, pork), heavily salted and rendered down in its own fat until tender. The meats are then placed in a small pot, topped with a generous layer of clarified butter, and allowed to solidify and firm up in the fridge. Basically, it's meat butter. It shouldn't be legal, but thank your lucky stars that it is. Spread on toast, savor the slowly melting butter, the salted pork, the flavorsome fat. This was a real show-stopper.

We initially balked at the idea of a $22 fried chicken. It just felt unnatural. But after the waiter finished his well-rehearsed description of the dish, stating that it was truly one of the standout menu items, we could not pass up the opportunity — we may be stubborn, but we know when to take good advice. And good it was. The chicken itself was no unconventional preparation, but it was done right. Moist, juicy interior, seasoned correctly, with a nice, crispy skin. You'd expect this level of execution given the price tag. But the accompaniments are what made the dish sing. A ragout of tender, robust pinto beans with pan-fried bacon bits formed the base of the plate. Tangy, tender, sautéed cabbage added elements of sweet and a touch of sour. A drizzle of sriracha-lime dressing brought everything together, and took this dish to new heights.

Our meal continued with a few bowls of steamed mussels ($9) swimming in a savory, flavorful broth and a spread of briny, crusted deep-fried green olives filled with softened goat cheese ($5). More fried chicken made its way to our table in the form of crispy fried chicken sliders with a sweet basil slaw and housemade pickles ($7). A beautifully cooked Creekstone hanger steak ($27) made its way onto our forks a few times, topped with black truffle butter and housemade Worcestershire sauce (something I've never seen made in-house before).

We were particularly smitten by the grilled pork chop plate ($23). The pork loin itself was remarkable — tender and flavorful. But it was the bed of pillowy goat-cheese grits that really took our breath away. Soft, smooth, almost pudding-like in texture. Rich with a generous amount of butter and blended with a hint of goat cheese, these are something you've got to try. Rarely is pork so completely outshined on a single plate.

We left the table better people that day. Our bellies full, our hearts brightened by wonderful company. Ciao Baci is the sort of place that reminds you what dining out should be all about: attentive service, well-executed dishes, good drink, and an atmosphere that invites smiles to the faces of everyone around the table. And for that, almost any price is fair. It's no wonder this place still packs 'em in.

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