Somewhere between waving goodbye to the departing summer tourists and saying hello to the pre-hurricane lines at the grocery stores, there lies a little season of calm. An evening drive into the heart of Destin to dine out is an option, not a punchline. If the prospect needed any sweetening, it was the temporary suspension of bridge tolls. My family and I recently traveled across Mid-Bay Bridge for dinner at Guglielmo Ianni’s newest restaurant, Ciao Italia Bistro.
Ciao Italia sits on a corner overlooking U.S. 98 East, easily visible from the road. The restaurant is spacious, with plenty of windows, indoor and outdoor seating. The dining room is an elongated rectangle, with a bar/lounge (and piano) a semi-private dining area, and tables for small and large parties. The walls are decorated with photos, mirrors, posters, and stills from classic gangster films. There are plants, wood and brick accents, and sturdy tables and chairs. The settings are solid and substantial – grownup glassware, good cloth napkins, serviceable silverware.
The hostess and server greeted us warmly. My daughter Grace did the ambassadorial duties, which consisted of telling everything she’d done since breakfast.
Once seated, we took a look at the menu, and our server (Becky) told us about some daily specials, which are also listed on a chalkboard at the entrance, including a family-style meal option. The menu offers appetizers, salads, classic pasta, homemade pasta, meat courses, fish, and a children’s menu.
Fried calamari is my and my wife’s default appetizer, and we hadn’t had it in a while, so we ordered a plate, with marinara sauce. Meantime, the server brought a plate of hot, crusty and chewy rolls, with herb and olive oil dip, plus butter. Grace tore into those—though she loved calamari as an unquestioning toddler, she declines it now.
The squid arrived; there was plenty for sharing. There’s a mixture of thick rings and tender little tentacles, with a full pitcher of warm marinara. Hot and crunchy on the outside, and tender on the inside. Grace didn’t seem to mind my eating her share, and some of her mom’s as well.
Other starters are fried ravioli, meatballs, bruschetta, shrimp or mussels diavola (spicy), caprese with tomato and basil, and hot wings. There are also salads—house, Caesar, Greek, and a soup of the day, and grilled chicken can be added to make a dinner salad.
I latched on to one of the daily specials—linguine pescatore (fisherman’s style), and my wife chose chicken piccata. The calamari had been almost a dinner in itself, so I was figuring on to-go boxes. While we waited for our mains, I noticed the place was beginning to fill with later evening diners. There was a large table of family and friends at the other end of the restaurant—carafes and bottles of wine, people laughing and enjoying themselves. There was a general sense of calm and serenity, even with a monster hurricane limbering up in the Atlantic.
The main courses arrived, generously portioned like the squid. My linguine came in a wide bowl, with a smaller bowl for shells. The pasta was mounded and laced with tender and chewy clams, scallops, shrimp, squid and chunks of fish, with a wine, garlic, onion and olive oil sauce that carried a touch of spicy heat. I ate it all without wanting any leftovers. My wife’s chicken was served over angel hair pasta, the richness of the white wine and butter sauce balanced with lemon and piquant capers. My wife boxed up much of hers (it fed us both next day), to help leave room for dessert.
Other entree possibilities include spaghetti and meatballs, fettucine alfredo, spaghetti carbonara, rigatoni with sausage in vodka sauce, spaghetti puttanesca, ravioli, spaghetti amatriciana (with pancetta, red pepper and tomato), penne contadina (with broccoli, mushrooms, olives, artichokes and roasted peppers), manicotti, lasagna, linguine Bolognese, gnocchi, stuffed shells, eggplant or chicken parmigiana, linguine with clams, shrimp scampi, risotto pescatore, chicken marsala, saltimbocca, sorrentina or Romano, fried or baked fish and shellfish, and blackened salmon Nero.
The dessert menu offers bomba (gelati with cherry, almond cinnamon and chocolate), chocolate fondant (not available that night), cheesecake, cannoli, and tiramisu. Grace and I split the tiramisu. Ciao Italia’s version is classic, pillowy soft ladyfingers soaked with coffee liqueur and espresso, with mascarpone and a dusting of unsweetened cocoa. Grace liked the whipped cream, but this was her first taste of coffee and she needs more time to cultivate her palate. ‘Til then, more for me.
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