However, Ciao Bella, with its numerous black and white photos of Hollywood actresses adorning the bare-brick walls couldn’t be further from the gangster-sodden stereotype portrayed on the silver screen. Sure, the rat pack can be heard crooning overhead, but in this quaint multi-storey eatery there’s not a single mobster or ex-con to be found among the intimate, candlelit tables.
As we take our seats a beaming waitress greets us with a complimentary glass of Prosecco filled with strawberry slices. A breadbasket soon follows accompanied by three side bowls containing balsamic vinegar, thyme and rosemary; roasted garlic cloves; and a white bean, rosemary and lime dip. Each makes for a simple yet highly aromatic pre-appetiser, akin to the type served in tiny family-run Italian eateries across Western Europe.
Wanting to make the most of our experience, we order an antipasti, piatti, pasta and pizza dish. The involtini di melanzane (grilled eggplant stuffed with goats cheese and herbs and smothered in tomato sauce) arrives first. Resembling two small cannelloni, the eggplant is charred to perfection; the intermittent black streaks and slight discolouration of the rolled leaf is a good sign. Never the biggest fan of over-mature goat’s cheese, I’m pleasantly surprised by its mildness here and the silky smooth texture, while the tomato sauce — more crushed and chunky than velvety — possesses a wonderful subtleness.
Out next is the margarita pizza. Consisting simply of mozzarella, tomato and basil, any Italian restaurant worth its crust (pun intended) should nail this most fundamental of dishes. And on the whole, Ciao Bella does exactly that. The thin crust base is perfectly crispy and crunchy, providing a solid foundation for the remaining ingredients to impress. More than anything, this is an extremely herby pizza, the slight sweetness and delicate menthol aroma of the basil making up for a lack of tomato sauce. Perhaps kept in the oven a minute or two longer than it should have, this pie is a smidgeon too dry for my liking, though still packed with quality.
The half portion fettuccine salmone (smoked salmon & leek with garlic cream sauce) and maiale alla valdostana (parmesan crusted pork stuffed with prosciutto and fontina cheese, marsala mushroom sauce with Tuscan potatoes and sautéed vegetables) arrive together. The former somehow manages to be both rich and salty in taste yet light on the stomach, while the consistency of the pasta is expertly al dente. All of the latter’s constituent parts are divine; the Tuscan potatoes crunchy and fragrant, the mixed sautéed vegetables (green beans, carrots, courgettes) morishly smothered in glorious garlic and butter, while the meat itself, all moist and thick, is among the very best I’ve eaten at any restaurant in the city.
Overall, Ciao Bella can be considered one of Saigon’s finest Italians. Even if it’s a New York version of the real deal. Its combination of a genuinely friendly and attentive waiting staff, romantic ambience, and quality food is hard to match anywhere else, let alone beat.
Grilled eggplant VND155,000
Margarita pizza VND150,000
Salmon fettuccine VND110,000
Parmesan crusted pork VND310,000
Food, decor and service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15:
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals