In a nutshell:
Ridiculously slow service and generally mediocre food
My friend's birthday dinner took place at Ciao last night. We arrived between 7:15 and 7:25, and there were 7 people in our group. We were seated in the somewhat cavernous lower level.
After sitting around for 15-20 minutes, one of my friends asked our server if we could have menus. She returned with menus. Our server was sweet and well-intentioned, but very green and timid. Often, we looked around for her, and she was nowhere to be found. I'm not sure why restaurants sometimes give novice servers the group tables, when a server with more experience is going to be more skilled when it comes to managing the order for a group, or keeping a group content.
We placed our cocktail orders around 8 pm, as well as a starter of polenta fries with gorgonzola dip to share. We waited, and waited. It seemed like the drinks took at least 20-25 minutes to arrive, which samed to be a long time since they were relatively simple drinks to make (2 negronis, 2 glasses of wine, a martini, a prosecco with a splash of Campari and a prosecco with a splash of Aperol) and one order was wrong, which thankfully was corrected quickly. The drinks arrived with the polenta fries and a loaf of freshly baked foccaccia-ish bread and some marinated olives.
We placed our orders at thi- 3 salads for first courses, and 2 pizzas, 2 risottos, and 3 pastas for mains. This was around 8:20. We also ordered a bottle of red and a bottle of white around this time. The server mentioned several of the wines we had requested were unavailable.
Around 20 minutes later (8:40ish), our two mixed greens salads, and an arugula, radicchio, endive and mushroom salad arrived at the table. The salads were a generous size. large enough to share between two as a starter, and decent overall. I asked for another loaf of bread at this time, and it arrived within 20 minutes.
Our bottles of wine arrived with the salads. The red wine was fine, but the white wine was corked. I turned into a bit of a comedy, as we passed the cork around the table, each of us sniffing the musty cork, and saying "That's awful- smell this" - reminding me of that old Saturday Night Live sketch. One friend asked the server to replace the wine, when she returned to the table. The server didn't seem to know what to do, and said she would return with the manager. We waited at least 15 minutes before a restaurant employee who looked like he was more senior walked past our table. Even then, if felt like we had to flag him down. Once he came to our table, he introduced himself as Marcello. I'm not sure if he was a manager, assistant manager or a sommelier. He was very courteous and understanding. He took one sniff, and agreed the wine was corked. I'm not sure why the servers at Ciao haven't been trained to at least detect when wine is "off" (edited as per SWS below). Within 10 minutes, we had a bottle of white on the table that was fine.
Around 9, there was still no sign of our main dishes, and we asked for a 3rd loaf of bread. I was worried at this point that we'd be full of bread, and all of us had ordered starch-based mains. One of my friends asked the server about the status of our food around 9:20 pm, and she returned to say there were still 20 dishes in the kitchen ahead of ours. We saw tables that were seated after us, receive their orders ahead of ours, and I started to wonder whether their kitchen waited until our salads were at the table before thinking about starting dishes like risotto, which take 30 minutes to make if the restaurant is making the risotto as it's ordered. Our mains arrived around 9:30 pm.
The risottos were huge portions, at least 4 cups of rice. I didn't try either of them, but my friend who ordered the seafood risotto in white sauce found her risotto to be inedible. It tasted like the rice was boiled in water, with butter stirred in at the end. Our server seemed to vanish shortly before some other employees brought out our mains. My friend who ordered the risotto flagged down another server from another table, and asked him what dish could be made quickly, so she could eat her meal with the rest of us. He suggested the house-made gnocchi. Incredibly, considering most of our mains took 2 hours to reach the table, her gnocchi in rose sauce arrived at the table within10 minutes of the rest of our dishes. Her gnocchi were edible but mediocre.
When Marcello passed by our table again, we let him know what a horrible excuse for risotto had been served. Another friend told the server that something should be done to make up for the pathetic risotto.
The rest of our dishes were ok. I had the Marinara pizza with anchovies, capers, basil. Very light on cheese. The pizza's description on the menu mentioned basil. If there was any basil on the pizza, it was the dried kind of basil, and not enough for me to detect it. Considering we'd already let our server and Marcello know about a number of food, wine and service issues that night, I didn't feel like mentioning I couldn't find the basil on my pizza. Flat crust, but on the doughy and chewy side, difficult to cut with the knife they provided. I realized I probably should've just stuck with a Margherita pizza.
I tried my friends cappellini with tomato sauce, capers, anchovies, which was ok. Another friend's orecchiette with rapini and sausage looked heavy on the pasta, very light on the rapini and sausage. The red sauce risotto was ok, according the friend who ordered it.
Given our generally disappointing meal, that we made very clear to the staff, I believe the uneaten risotto was comped, and we were given a complimentary round of limoncello.
This is what I gathered from this experience at Ciao. If you've got discriminating tastes when it comes to Italian food, do not eat at Ciao. If you know what good risotto tastes like, don't order risotto at Ciao. If you are Italian, or have spend a lot of time in Italy, do not eat at Ciao. If you'd like to eat in less than 3 hours on a Friday night, advise everyone in your party to stick to pastas and pizzas.
We left the restaurant around 10:30 pm. Luckily, Simply Italian gelato was still open for business, so the Birthday girl was able to have something delicious on her birthday.