"I've turned into a food snob," managing editor Nick Schou told me as he watched me scarf down a bowl of caesar salad at Ciao! Deli & Pizzeria in Costa Mesa. It was a small bowl, part of the lunch special, featuring Parmesan cheese, croutons and romaine lettuce pulled from a bag, topped by dressing from a bottle. "The only proper Parmesan should come from Parma, and it shouldn't be in a bag; it should be shaved off . . ." And then Nick pretended to hold a grater and a block of cheese and "shaved" up a hypothetical mound of the stuff.
I agreed—and I didn't give a damn. We should always care about the quality of food, but when a plate of spaghetti, marinara sauce singing like a thousand Tuscan sunsets, sits before you, purity goes out the door just as it does at a sorority initiation ritual. This is especially the case when it comes to Italian-American food, along with Chinese and Mexican one of the great mutt cuisines of the United States, a food built on modifying the mother country to this brave new land to reach not heights, but comfort. That's why pastas are almost always interchangeable at such restaurants, and Ciao initially seems to embody that. It concentrates only on the classics of the genres—pastas and subs built on heft, pizzas that don't hew to any regional tradition other than the universal love for a slice. But amazingly—surprisingly—the Ciao folks take the commonplace and push it toward the divine. That pizza: thick, with great-wonderful cheese that melts to a creaminess almost unknown to local Italian-American pizzerias. Most pizzas need toppings to mask the limp cheese, the rancid marinara, the forgettable crust, but Ciao's excels—I ordered a slice of cheese pizza and, for the first time I can remember, didn't put any red flakes or Parmesan cheese on it. Pastas are perfectly al dente; the subs, filling and nuanced. And the garlic knots, hunks of bread dusted with garlic, are wonderful. Authentic? Not in the least—and no one cares, busy as they are chowing down.
As if to prove this point, blaring on Ciao's speakers while Nick and I ate was Dino crooning "Sway" (a song originally recorded as a Mexican bolero) followed by Rosemary Clooney's sultry "Mambo Italiano." All around the tiny place were posters featuring Jimi Hendrix, The Godfather, Joe DiMaggio, the Raiders—a big, beautiful, Italian-American mess, one that even Nick couldn't disagree with when we left, to-go boxes in tow. "That was a good pizza," he admitted, somewhat sheepishly. "Just the right amount of grease."
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This column appeared in print as "Chow Bella."