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Ciao for cheap 

Downtown Italian restaurant corners the bargain lunch market.

HEAPING: The tenderloin and spicy seafood and focaccia bread.
  • HEAPING: The tenderloin and spicy seafood and focaccia bread.

Ciao Italian Restaurant has been around a quarter century in its quiet Seventh Street digs. The unassuming hole-in-the-wall eatery sports white walls, black tablecloths, red napkins and a display of local artwork. What comes out of Chef Tony Mobly's kitchen, though, could be described as dressy and delicious.

For the lunchtime diner on a budget, there's much good Italian food to be had. Ten meals are offered as “Express Lunches” at the rather reasonable rate of $5.45. Standards include spaghetti Bolognese, cheese tortellini pesto and Caesar salad. But there are also specials that range from the modest to the extravagant.

We've made several stops in lately to escape the workday world and enjoy companionship and good food. On one recent visit, we gave the fried beef ravioli ($5.45) a try. The crispy little morsels are just as good as any you'd find in St. Louis, the birthplace of fried ravioli. Our companion went for a daily special, the spicy crawfish fettuccini ($8.99). The big bowl of fettuccini noodles comes topped with perhaps the spiciest Cajun-enhanced Alfredo we've sampled. The crusty crab cake on top included lots of crabmeat and noticeable bits of corn and veggies, a nice, un-spicy balance to all that crawfish and sauce. Plus, an assortment of fresh veggies, flavored deliciously with black pepper, salt, olive oil and garlic.

We also paired our tortellini Alfredo ($7.99) with a cup of lobster bisque, a salty yet heavenly bath of flavor. The delicate tortellini was filed with a cheese and plenty of tender veal, which matched well with the cheesy Alfredo.

Another visit, we decided to give the house focaccia ($3.79) a try. Out came a basketful of crusty-edged herbed wedges, deliciously soft on the inside, along with two boats — one filled with a blend of roasted garlic, olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette, the other with bits of Feta cheese, red onion and scallions. It alone would be worthy of a light lunch, and it took a lot to be able to set the half-full basket aside to enjoy our main courses.

Our companion chose another of the specials, the beef tenderloin topped with spicy seafood ($14.99). If we had any complaint, it was that the tenderloin itself was hidden under large shrimp and chunks of crawfish. The 4-ounce steak was fork-tender, perfectly cooked and tasty.

We also sampled another of the daily specials, the salmon with dill cream sauce ($9.99). The plate came with the same linguini and vegetables served up with the beef tenderloin. It was a little more done than we're used to, but with the sauce it was a lovely lunch.

We didn't give into the temptation of finding out about that $46.99 ultimate beef tenderloin; leave that for those unconcerned with keeping the budget. Our lunch tickets every time we've visited, even with multiple desserts, came to less than that lofty amount.


Ciao Italian Restaurant
405 W. Seventh St.
372-0238

Quick bite
Desserts change on a daily basis. At lunch, mini-desserts go for $2.99. Especially recommended: a diminutive but perfect chocolate creme Brule, the flown-in-from-Key-West Key lime pie and the chocolate truffle (a half-round as a mini-dessert). Also: vanilla gelato with berries soaked in Frangelico.

Hours
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Other info
Credit cards accepted. Full bar.

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