LAKELAND — When the occasion calls for a bite of something Italian, folks in north Lakeland have an abundance of options.
Ciao Bella is right at the top of the list for its mom-and-pop appeal, exceptional marinara and homey dishes plucked from the balmy, seaside city of Naples, Italy, native home to Livia and Domenico Verilo.
The couple took ownership of this cozy restaurant six years ago, picking up where a nephew left off. They garnered favor back then from a Ledger food critic who has since left the paper. A revisit was long overdue.
Ciao Bella was, and still is, the sort of neighborhood pizzeria that attracts lovers of homespun goods. It’s a place where rustic is a virtue, in both food and ambience. You will feel at home in the Verilo dining room, no matter the state of your attire. Of course, decency has its limits.
Most days you will find Livia Verilo presiding and making small talk with regulars, drawn into the fold by exquisite, minimalist pizzas, the dough stretched ridiculously thin, the way it’s done in Old Napoli.
Anointed in bright-red marinara that’s light and pitch-perfect with fresh, tomato flavor, the Verilos’ pizzas showcase a chewy crust and, in the case of a classic Margarita, scant toppings of mozzarella and basil.
The base marinara marries beautifully with cream and vodka in a classic penne presentation, $8.95 and $10.95, that gets a boost from a flurry of Parmesan and shallots. An extra $4 buys you two sizeable, meaty meatballs, making this otherwise tasty dish something to crow about.
In a classic, chicken piccata, $8.95, $13.95, a tender paillard is treated to a bright, lively, picquant sauce of lemon, butter and capers, all riding atop a bed of spaghetti.
These and other staples of the south of Italy, including a standard, workhouse eggplant parmigiana, reflect the owners’ preference for dishes that are both familiar and inexpensive.
Assisting both in the kitchen and front of the house are the Verilos’ daughter, Daniela Borelli, and her husband, Enrico, who round out a family team that deftly manages an extensive menu that includes such teasers as gnocchi in a sauce of Gorgonzola, walnuts and prosciutto, $16.95.
Less interesting is a $16.95 dish of chicken, shrimp and mushrooms in a wan brandy sauce that just didn’t measure up to the kitchen’s otherwise commendable talents. The base of pasta, too, was overcooked for those who prefer things al dente.
Tucked away next to a Publix Super Market in the Plantation Square center on North Socrum Loop Road, Ciao Bella does many things splendidly, especially in the dessert category. Livia Verilo takes personal pride in this category, creating one of the best versions of tiramisu that I’ve found in these parts.
Another winner is a dense, flourless cake made of ground almonds and flavored with limoncello, or something like it. It is addicting, light, moist, and none too sweet, a perfect ending to a meal at this endearing restaurant, that also serves a small-but-adequate roster of beer and wine.
The restaurant’s pizza ovens also turn out gorgeous calzones and strombolis, and a Sicilian-style pizza for those who embrace a thicker crust.
Ciao Bella promotes the idea of everyday Italian: a glass of wine that won’t break the bank, a cup of soup, a simple salad, followed by something that suits your fancy, be it a plate of lobster-filled ravioli, or a wedge of textbook lasagna. Of course, you could skip the entrée and go straight to dessert. Either way, Mama Verilo would be proud.
Eric Pera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7528.