Ciao Lavanderia is part of a trio of almost abutting establishments belonging to Damien Watel. They include the near-eponymous Bistro Vatel (Damien traces his descent from the 17th-century French chef Francois Vatel), which offers French cooking, and the recently opened Ciao Vino, a wine bar with an early 20th-century Parisian-café decor, open from 5 p.m. to midnight. Between Bistro Vatel and Ciao Vino sits the longstanding neighborhood dry cleaner, Oak Park Cleaners, with its carefully demarcated parking places.
Ciao Lavanderia, which has been serving since the early 2000s and translates as “Goodbye, Laundromat,” takes its name from the former occupant of this small strip mall just off the Olmos Park roundabout. Able to accommodate about 50 for lunch, including a few small patio tables, Ciao Lavanderia was about half full when my companion and I arrived shortly after noon. By the time we finished lunch at 1:30, there were only two small tables still occupied, and three of the jeans-and-black-T-shirt waitstaff enjoying their meals. We found this somewhat unusual, as we’re more accustomed to staff eating before or after the paying customers.
Ciao’s decor is distinctly casual. Exposed ducts, walls, and ceiling are all painted apple green. The outside panels for the restaurant patio are painted red and blue — go figure. Chairs and tables are mismatched, as if they were assembled from another restaurant’s going-out-of-business sale. No tablecloths. An adjoining room with another 10 tables, used for dinner, is more formal.
The menu includes a selection of salads at $8, main dishes at $14 (mainly pastas and thin-crust pizzas), and a daily chalkboard with entree specials ranging from $10 to $24. (Note: the prices are 15 to 20 percent higher than quoted on the restaurant’s website). Regularly included are signature dishes such as Gnocchi Napolitan, Pappardelle Pescatore, and Braised Duck with Figs. A modest selection of freshly prepared desserts are $8 each. We noticed several orders for panna cotta, the northern Italian favorite of cooked cream, milk, and sugar, frequently embellished by fruits or nuts. Sadly, we had no room left after salads and main courses.
The highlight was the delicious first course of goat cheese portobello polenta, two generous squares of cold polenta topped with slivered portobello mushroom, and an ample dollop of goat cheese, drizzled with a beef-broth carmelized sauce, and topped with arugula and other salad greens. The polenta was rich and melted in the mouth, and the goat cheese provided a contrast to the slightly sweet sauce.
We followed the first course with a wood-oven-prepared small pizza topped with salmon, onion, pureed spinach, and a lot of mozzarella. The salmon was a bit too salty, and there really was too much of the cheese, but the pizza crust was perfectly done, and the spinach pureed in olive oil made a great base.
My companion ordered tomato-basil risotto with shrimp, another menu treat. Four jumbo broiled shrimp were stacked around a small mound of risotto, topped with more field greens. The risotto was rich and creamy, a good test for any Italian restaurant. The meals are well proportioned, unlike the huge portions favored by Italian chains.
We liked the ample space between tables, which allows for conversation in normal tones. Service was pleasant but not obtrusive, timely but not hurried. All in all a pleasurable lunch, albeit pricey. (Prices are unchanged from lunch to dinner). Wines are not cheap, but there are a few good Italian reds in the low $30s, and at least a half-dozen wines are available by the glass at $7.25. Bread is extra. A lunch for two with wine, dessert, tax, and tip easily gets you close to $100.
Who eats there? “Ladies who lunch,” couples, neighborhood women who don’t want to dress up, a few businessmen. And sitting next to us, a young Army couple in camouflage was pleasantly surprised to have the check picked up by another diner.
Returning for dinner a few days later, I chose a vacant table in the half-full dining room. Interestingly, the white tablecloths were topped with white butcher paper, to facilitate clearing tables before seating new diners, I suppose. The effect was a bit tacky.
For an appetizer, I ordered the shrimp sauteed in lemon with swiss chard and was not disappointed. The three shrimp were large and tasty, and the sauce a lemony butter. It would have been nice to have bread to sop up extra sauce, but bread is a la carte, another unusual note for an Italian restaurant.
My entree was the cola-braised pork cheeks with smoked porcini mushrooms and lentils. The two pieces of pork were very fatty and required a lot of trimming to enjoy the meat. The cola taste was elusive, and the bits of porcini were few and far between. When my attentive waitress asked if everything was all right, I told her the meat had too much fat. She said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” She made no offer to substitute another dish, or at the least to pass on the message.
I had a glass of the Rocca della Macie Chianti Classico. While it lacked the robust flavor I associate with chianti classico, it was soft and smooth, and the glass was a generous pour.
There were four desserts on the menu including the omnipresent panna cotta and tiramisu. I chose the raspberry tart, which was served in a chocolate crust. A smooth, satiny creme with what seemed a hint of almond balanced the fruit.
As with lunch, I felt at these prices (almost $50 per person for dinner without bread, salad, or coffee), other Italian restaurants offer local diners noticeably more value.
For the physically disabled, entry can be difficult. There is only a very steep ramp from the adjoining street. And while the bathrooms were clean, more frequent monitoring should take care of paper towels scattered on the floor. •