By Gary Nager

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Considering how packed the Shops at Wiregrass mall have been throughout the recent holiday shopping season, I’m sure most of you already know that Ciao! Italian Bistro has replaced Pagelli’s Italian Grill in the mall. Hopefully, you’ve also already sampled some of the cuisine at Ciao!, but if you haven’t, I’m hear to report about some pretty impressive menu items I’ve already gotten to sample in the short month or two that Ciao! has been open.

I recently treated the office to lunch at Ciao! and everyone had rave reviews for what they sampled, especially assistant editor Matt Wiley, who flipped over Ciao’s prime rib and cheese panini sandwich, which features slow-roasted prime rib of beef, smoked bacon, smoked Gouda, caramelized onions and horseradish mayo on grilled Ciabatta bread. The waffle-cut fries which come with the sandwich are a similar style as, burt a crisp improvement on, the waffle fries at Chick-fil-A.

Senior graphic artist Porsha Lemos and I both really enjoyed the crisp-crusted Margherita pizza and I also can vouch for the “Angry Mussels,” which are sitting in a wonderful, heady mix of olive oil, bacon, garlic, green chilies, red pepper flakes, chives, chopped tomatoes and pinot grigio and served with addictive garlic bread.

Meanwhile, office manager Nikki Bennett said her chicken cannelloni, which are big tubes of pasta filled with chicken, ricotta and spinach and finished with both Alfredo and marinara, was also top-notch. On the subject of pasta, perhaps my favorite dish at Ciao! to date has been the rigatoni alla Toscana, which features large tube pasta sautéed with Italian sausage, roasted peppers, onion and tomato sauce, topped with garlic-herb Rondele. I would order the Rondele cheese on the side next time, but the dish is an excellent mix of sweet and spicy.

I also have to say that I’m impressed with Ciao!’s ability to go from traditional Italian to unconventional grill restaurant, and always with a little bit of a twist.

For example, while many restaurants serve grilled salmon, sales rep Taylor Gardner said his salmon was definitely fresh and he really enjoyed the way it was prepared (topped with parmigiano reggiano, basil bread crumb encrusted tomatoes and citrus pesto sauce, a side of perfectly sauteed fresh asparagus tips and a unique asparagus risotto. Speaking of fish, I was stunned to find a fresh grilled yellowtail snapper on the menu, especially when it was served with an almost-hash-brown-like potato-parmesan crust and served with lemon basil butter sauce and the same sides.

My favorite non-pasta entrée so far, though, has been the slow roasted prime rib, served with rosemary au jus, horseradish sauce, aged white cheddar and basil mashed potatoes and those yummy asparagus. The prime rib definitely has me wanting to come back to sample Ciao!’s other grilled items, including the double-cut pork chops, the unique (for this area) bone-in fillet and my usual favorite, the New York strip steak.

But, I really need to extend that wish list, because Ciao! has a huge menu that includes everything from starters like jumbo lump crab cakes to calamari to a definitely different burrata caprese (tomato, mozzarella & basil salad) and even crab & macaroni and cheese.

Speaking of salads, I’ve already enjoyed Ciao!’s wedge and traditional Caesar salads, but there also is everything from a seared salmon salad to a Ciao! Greek salad and even a poached pear salad, which I don’t believe I’ve seen in Tampa before.

Ciao! also has a variety of bruschettas I’ve yet to sample, from a shrimp ceviche bruschetta to a version that includes an heirloom tomato salsa.

And, in addition to the Margherita pizza, Ciao! also offers a variety of other pizzas and flatbreads, with everything from steak tips to barbecue chicken. The pasta variety also is huge, including butternut and wild mushroom ravioli dishes to lasagna Bolognese, eggplant milanese, heirloom puttanesca, chicken Florentine Abruzzo and photographer Jayne Baker enjoyed the Ciao! Meatballs. The descriptions just from the menu alone are making my mouth water.

Other sandwiches on my list to sample are the bacon cheddar burger and even the Greek pita, with gyro-style lamb and tzatziki sauce.

For dessert, Ciao! always has fresh-baked cupcakes and a variety of Italian cookies, as well as everything from a made-to-order chocolate souffle to deep-dish caramel apple pie, and traditional Italian desserts like tiramisu and cannolis.

The interior of the restaurant hasn’t changed much since Pagelli’s, which was always a casually elegant, relaxed atmosphere, especially at the beautiful bar area, which features super-premium liquors, imported and micro-brewed beers on tap and in bottles (try the Ciao! Rustic Red) and a nice selection of popularly priced wines. The place isn’t cheap, but with so many options from which to choose, I’m sure you’re going to find new favorites of your own every time you visit Ciao!

or, if you want to try a small sampling of the cuisine at Ciao!, you should attend one of the Wesley Chapel Noon Rotary Club meetings, held at the restaurant every Wednesday at noon (go figure). Ciao! serves a nice buffet that changes every week and the Rotary Club is a great group of local business leaders. Definitely worth checking out.

The website says Ciao! is “all about warm Mediterranean flair with a twist. Ciao! has a feast for the eyes, as well as the palate.”

Ciao! Italian Bistro is located at 2001 Piazza Ave., directly across from Cantina Laredo, in the Shops at Wiregrass. It is open daily from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Friday & Saturday until midnight). You also can host your next event at Ciao! for up to 100 people. For reservations (not required, but recommended) and more info, call 907-2200 or visit

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