236 South High Street,
Baltimore’s Little Italy has seen dramatic changes since the 80s. The area once flourished with Italian restaurants block after block. You could easily find dishes from the old country that are not always the easiest to produce at home. Over the years, too many of these great places from the Rat Pack era have closed. Several of the survivors still churn out the basics, but not with the same flare and flavor I grew up with. Fortunately, there are still a few that carry on the tradition of the old ways.
Ciao Bella, operated by brother and sister team Tony and Lisa Gambino, continues to satisfy with each visit. And no. Don’t expect to see secret meetings of the five families. Do expect witty banter and a good cocktail from Lisa, along with great food.
The appetizers are focused on fresh ingredients from the sea. From their Clams Casino, with the bacon balancing the briny clams, to their Shrimp Oreganati (shrimp in a warm garlic butter sauce), you can enjoy a variety of the ocean’s best comfort food.
We shared the Seafood Tetrazzini for the next course. The bounty of shrimp and crab meat bathed in a lobster brandy cream sauce was heavenly. The well-balanced flavors weren’t overly rich. Instead, they accentuated the sweetness of the shellfish. The fresh linguini swirling in the decadent creaminess was like having dessert at the same time. As filling as this dish is on its own, I was craving more boozy sauces.
The land animals were equally great. Chicken Marsala in that sweet, savory marsala wine sauce with just the right consistency, more syrupy than watered down like so many places that fail on this dish. The Veal Franchese’s pairing of sweet sherry with a tinge of lemon equally satisfied. I suggest asking for your side pasta to be served with the same sauce, although Tony’s marinara is still a win. If you somehow still have room after downing the generous portions, cap the meal with a hit of espresso and a cannoli. No matter how little or how much you try, Ciao Bella retains that taste of Baltimore’s Little Italy from an era faded out by all the new development from this century.
- Michael Ritmiller is a Baltimore native and foodie whose professional career spans across a variety of research & development initiatives in addition to serving local non-profits that benefit the community. An avid believer in supporting small restauranteurs, Michael began writing for Baltimore OUTloud in 2018 with the intent of identifying who offers the “best of” dishes around town.