by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & iao Mambo has figured out the formula for success. Sort of a sexier Tomato Street, it has white butcher paper on the table and crayons for you to doodle with while awaiting your order of Italian Nachos ($11 for lightly fried pasta sheets covered in meatball-prosciutto-alfredo sauce). Yet they boast a wine list of nearly 40 domestic and imported red and white varieties, some priced at more than $100 a bottle. (Holy cannoli!)
One of only a few links in a chain of restaurants that originates in Montana, Ciao Mambo has an Olive Garden feel that may appeal to many diners. It's got brightly colored walls, Rat Pack music in the background, and a well-rounded menu of appetizers, soup and salad, pasta, pizza, kids' portions and even dessert.
We started with the Tootsie Rolls ($7) appetizer and a glass of California pinot noir ($9). The Tootsie Rolls are actually four paper-thin whole-egg wrappers stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella and home-style pesto, served in a deep dish filled with chunky tomato sauce. The sauce, while flavorful, was way too salty, which was a complaint I had the first time we visited as well. The pesto lacked any bite -- it was hardly a flavor factor at all -- and some of the rolls needed to be crispier to offset the soft texture of the cheese.
We had heard mixed reviews about the pizza so instead opted to try their insalata con salmone ($14) and the cozze ($15) -- linguine with mussels. The salad is a healthy portion of mixed baby greens, red onion, cucumber, black olive, feta cheese, mushrooms, tomato, artichoke and balsamic vinaigrette. My partner found the vinaigrette bland and the Pacific salmon fillet well-sized but overcooked and without the flavor of dill it was supposedly "smacked" with, according to the menu. He was nonetheless appeased by the never-ending basket of fresh garlic bread, which went well with the abundant stock in my cozze.
The cozze was wonderfully done, with a hearty and flavorful fish stock and perfectly al dente linguine. The fresh basil tempered the savory stock, and the mussels -- more than a dozen of them -- were nicely done.
Although the salmon salad was disappointing, the very same dish with eggplant -- the insalata di melanzane alla parmigiana ($13) -- was wonderful when I had it the first time we visited the restaurant. Thick slices of eggplant, a smoky-earthy flavor and thick cheese made this dish inventive atop the salad and -- with the exception of the too-salty tomato sauce -- a very satisfying meal.
We were seated at the exact same table as we had been when we first visited Ciao Mambo several months ago. At that time, my partner had the lasagna, which was a dense dish of pasta, saut & eacute;ed spinach, meat sauce, ricotta and mozzarella ($13). Knowing the effort it takes to make lasagna, and the difficulty of preventing it from coming out soggy or chewy, I can say this was a well-constructed dish, even if a little pricey for the portion.
If we were to return to Ciao Mambo, we'd probably pony up and try the pizza, which is brick-oven style and includes nine styles plus the option to build your own. There's the margherita (just mozzarella and sauce), a rustica (veggies and goat cheese), Napoli (mozzarella, pepperoni, banana peppers, spinach, roasted garlic marinara) and classic St. Peter-style with pesto, mozzarella, mushrooms, onions and olive oil ($11-$16).
Seated in the upper level of Ciao Mambo, we appreciated being away from the open kitchen and bustle of the lower-level dining area. Our seat gave us a view overlooking the beautifully designed outdoor fountain area in the restaurant's tony Hayden Creek Plaza locale and, in this section near the bar, we easily could have caught the football game, too. Although there are a few secluded dining spots, this is definitely a socially oriented restaurant and would be a fun place to hook up with your own Rat Pack.