CIBO, THE HIP YOUNG sister of NW 21st's long-standing Bastas, opened in July of this year along a stretch of SE Division that seems to have investors spraying fire hoses of cash into every broken window and abandoned cobbler shop. It's a boomtown down there, and with the addition of this and a handful of other newsworthy spots, it's now a destination.
This handsome new space has made a considerable investment in an imported Italian wood- and gas-fired dome pizza oven, gussied with forno bling and boasting a digital readout of deck and air temperatures. If there had been a Lazy Susan in the Inferno, it would look like this, but instead of crispy little pagans this one turns out salt-baked pompano and bubbling pies. It's a comforting hearth and anchor to a space that has the dark, solid feel of a nightclub in a sexy library. The tables are large, the seats are comfortable, and the deep raised booths have a feeling of privacy and occasion. A wine bucket and smart cocktails sit on one table, and a family with a child eating a $5 happy hour Margherita is quietly ensconced at another. The noise level is easily conversational even when at capacity.
Unique to Cibo are its cecina, a baked Tuscan flatbread appetizer. Somewhere between a thick, tender pancake and a savory clafouti, chickpea batter is studded with eggplant or meat, and baked until the surface is a golden lunar landscape. Sweet, clove-scented sausage and rich Taleggio keeps the mild bread interesting in one version, while a more traditional one is simply spiced with black pepper. They range from $8-12.
There are just a handful of starters, but they are safe bets done well. The arancini is the size of a baseball, deep-fried to a thick exterior crisp and presented cut in half, so the golden, saffron-scented Arborio rice, salty minced filling, and melted mozzarella present attractively. It's a fair size for $6, and good to share. The salt cod fritters with olive relish and lemon ($7) are also a solid value. Tightly battered and fried crisp, the intact hunks of fish have the look and texture of the British Tourism Board's finest stock photo of fish 'n' chips.
The insalata mista is, for $7, the only real miss on the menu. It's a handful of greens and a few pieces of onion in unremarkable vinaigrette. Put your vegetable money toward the unusual and delicious sautéed pea tendrils ($5)—a clean, sweet, and refreshing departure from broccoli rabe and kale.
The pizzas ($10-14) are good Neapolitan style, but I wish the sauce were less salty and applied with a lighter hand, because while the thin crust is blistered, scorched, chewy, and nutty, the buttery mozzarella already provides ample moisture without needing help. I also don't get a big kick out of cutting up pizza with scissors, but this practice seems to impart a certain sort of authenticity, so this is not a case of hating the player, but rather the game.
Mains are where things go from good to great. If there is one takeaway from this review, it is to get the simple, roasted Basta chicken—a fragrant, juicy, crunchy-skinned and rosemary-salted masterpiece I would follow anywhere. One could quibble with the fact that Cibo finishes their air-dried roast bird in the deep fryer, but I honestly don't see the point of arguing technique when the result is a golden bird whose wing tips and ribs crackle like straw. At only $12 with white beans and sautéed pea shoots, it's also a remarkably affordable piece of perfection.
The hanger steak with herbed, chipped fries was similarly noteworthy in its simple pleasure. A generous portion of this butcher cut—hanger is like skirt, but more flavorful thanks to hanging out so near the kidneys—is grilled medium rare, charred and salty on the outside while rosy throughout. Call the hanger an onglet anywhere else and it's $24; here, it's a score at just $14.
Many pastas feature chef Marco Frattaroli's legendary house-made meats. A malfatti al ragu ($12) is little pasta rags with a loose, winter-spiced sauce that is sweet and comforting. The Roman meatball ($13) is a singular pork, beef, spinach, and pine nut beast, the size of your fist, imposing but delicate and tender, an ethereal meatloaf. Its pasta is a fresh chitarra-cut spaghetti dressed in a simple marinara.
Nine house cocktails, largely Cibo-ized classics, ring in between $7-9, and a dozen or so Italian and Spanish wines by the glass run between $6-9.75. A half-dozen local beers are on draft.
Cibo is affordable enough to be a weekly mainstay, yet the quality of the food and experience elevates the feeling of visits to special-occasion status. Even at this early stage, it's clearly one of the stand-out openings of the year.
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Get the chicken, Monday-Saturday, 5 pm-midnight.