Musseling in on downtown. With so many restaurants biting the dust (Ernesto's, Kayo's, etc.) you might think the dining scene here is tanking, but there are several stepping in for the casualties. Gone but not forgotten is Hans, the downtown pastry-shop-turned-fine-dining restaurant. In its place is Ciao Mambo, a fast-paced, lively pasta and pizza eatery.
The Bend Ciao Mambo is the fourth in installment in the growing franchise offered by the Whitefish, Mont. company CM Brands. The other locations are in Whitefish and Missoula, Mont. and Hayden, Idaho.
Ciao Mambo is one of the only downtown franchises, this isn't to say we don't have our fair share of chains and franchises. Just take a trip down Third Street; it looks like any other American city with its fast food drive thrus, Applebee's and Outback Steak Houses. But downtown has been the territory of local restaurateurs and diners who usually eschew the consistent, but mass-produced meals, that most chains or franchises offer. Now, these local spots will have to compete directly with a franchise's deep pockets and proven model.
The menu describes the food as "immigrant style Italian cuisine," which is a nice way to say Americanized. Lots of pasta-tossed, baked and fried-and sauces in every color. There are house specialties like the Tootsie Rolls, wide strip of pasta rolled around cheese and deep fried; and the Italian Nachos, fried strips of pasta covered in meatball and prosciutto alfredo sauce. The bread served before the meal is soft, sliced and cooked with olive oil. Not things you're likely to find in Italy.
But Ciao Mambo isn't claiming to be Italian from Italy, it's claiming to be American Italian, and with that description in mind, the dining experience is rather good.
There are lots of seafood items and most at our table opted for frutti di mare. The calamari got a big thumbs up from everyone: the kids (five and ten) as well as the adults. The steamed clams are nicely presented and have subtle but pleasant flavors from roasted peppers.
I got the "Cozze" - mussels on pasta in a seafood stock - a lighter dish with lots of mussels that were just a bit over done. The "Fettuccini alla Rustica" had wonderful tastes of fresh peas, prosciutto, chicken and a rich but not heavy Parmesan cream sauce. But the best were the "Linguini alle Vongole" and the "Frutti di Mare," packed full of seafood with a crispy, thick slice of bread under the pasta to absorb all the savory sauce.
Desserts are frilly, but lack a bit in depth. The house specialty is "Zeppolis" described as small doughnuts, but are actually little chunks of ciabatta-type bread, fried and dusted in powdered sugar and served with dipping sauce. The "Cannoli" was too hard and crunchy, but the ricotta was nicely flavored with cinnamon.
Service is friendly with servers schooled in writing their names upside down with crayons on your paper-topped table. Frank Sinatra croons overhead and the sidewalk seating is alluring.
In comparing Ciao Mambo to other Italian restaurant franchises, it would be fair to say that Mambo is a big step above the Olive Garden, but a notch below Il Fornio.
915 NW Wall Street, 382-3000, www.ciaomambo.com. Every day 5pm-close