Ciao Vito
2203 NE Alberta

I'm sure you've seen this place by now. It took over the beloved if not culinarily brilliant Chez What, tore everything out, and became a swank, dark Italian bistro. Note the fashionable, open-air kitchen, the al fresco dining, the intimate, dark wooden tables indoors, and the informed and friendly staff. Ciao Vito is trying its hardest to do what Chez What did--pull in neighborhood customers, and be a solid part of the community, albeit with superior (Italian) cuisine.

Athough I may be stoned to death for saying it, I thought Chez What's food was pretty terrible, so I'm glad the space has a new tenant. And while Ciao Vito also has its shortcomings, I think in no time it will find itself as a staple Alberta eatery.

The things Ciao Vito does well, it does remarkably well. Their Sunday brunch is fantastic, reasonably priced, uncrowded, and as relaxing as a late night soak in the hottub. The tomato basil panini is phenomenal, the fresh, potent taste of the basil and tomato juxtapose the fried egg and chewy toasted bread beautifully. Served with the most remarkable potatoes I've ever tasted; fingerlings with sauteed onions, this is by far one of the best breakfast plates in town ($4.95).

The asparagus, red pepper, and goat cheese scramble was great, too, served with the blockbuster potatoes, toast, and a homemade apricot and pineapple jam that was so good I'd like to buy a jar for my fridge. Plus, Vito's Bloody Marys are daring and just my speed, spiked with a ton of horseradish and a healthy dose of vodka.

Actually, I was a little startled at how flavorful Vito's brunch was after having eaten dinner there, which I found to be overwhelmingly bland. On the occasion in question, I tried the antipasti plate (you can always judge an Italian restaurant by its antipasti plate), and thought it was confused and mediocre; a piece of proscuitto here, a tiny pile of crumbled egg there, a few sprigs of asparagus, three slices of chicken, cold broccoli, cauliflower. In short, the plate had too much of everything and not enough of anything.

Afterwards came the halibut, which was unnoticeably seasoned and served on a creative-looking yet tasteless cold salad, complete with asparagus and various leaves and shoots. The dinner was fine and healthy, just expensive and not very stimulating. Likewise, the grilled stuffed chicken breast with asparagus looked sad and lonely on a big plate, and tasted unremarkable, something I felt like I could have prepared at home.

Safer items on the dinner menu are the pasta bolognese, or the Italian burger. These will only run you about eight dollars, and even less during happy hour (4-6 pm weekdays, 3-6 pm Sat-Sun). So, even though I wouldn't order the chicken or fish again, I'd gladly return for happy hour, or one of Vito's fabulous desserts. Their strawberry shortcake is utterly amazing--a fluffy, buttery biscuit bisected by whipped cream and fresh strawberries, bathed in a dark red berry sauce. This is the kind of dessert that, if shared, could diffuse even the worst argument.

The chef at Ciao Vito (Vito, formerly of Caffé Mingo) obviously has vision and skill. All he needs to do is bring a little more of it to the dinner entrees, and he'll have a refuge for the affluent Beaumont Villiage residents and more frugal North Portlanders alike.