By Michael Sullivan
Ciao Italian Grill
1111 S. Victoria Ave.
Ever since I essentially went on a vegan diet for my New Year’s resolution, finding restaurants that offer dishes from which I don’t have to strip away half the ingredients and be left with a less than satisfying meal has been practically impossible. I get that vegans can be somewhat difficult to work with, but are we really that hard? Turns out, Roger Allen, owner and founder of Ciao Italian Grill at Seabridge Marketplace in Oxnard, understands both sides of the dietary spectrum. He even touts that understanding with the motto “Bringing meatatarians and vegetarians together finally,” embroidered on his and his employees’ shirts. For an extra bonus for those health-conscious eaters, Allen also takes pride in his organic produce and pastas, and antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken.
When we went to visit Ciao Italian Grill, it had only been open for maybe a month, if that. For the décor, the walls were lined with about a half-dozen professional seascape photos, and an accent wall made of antique or worn wood gave it a rustic feel. The repurposed jars-turned-chandeliers added a nice, quirky touch. The trash cans with the tray holders on top, akin to a cafeteria, were less than optimal in the classy department, but they filled a practical need.
First thing to know about Ciao Italian Grill is that, essentially, you are the chef. The patron chooses everything from start to finish — choose a dish type: a grilled item, pasta/grain bowl, panino or a salad. Then select toppings and/or sides and then, voilà! The staff cooks and prepares it but the flavor combinations are up to the patron. Second thing, do not sit down before you order. The food preparation style is akin to delis and some Mexican eateries also known as fast casual restaurants.
When we approached the counter, an array of pots were filled with pastas and sauces, with a skillet atop a griddle to warm up the pastas, sauces, etc. At the end of the line, plastic containers held various toppings to complete one’s order. Our options included: from the grill — Italian herb chicken, Tuscan steak, grilled pesto tofu, grilled vegetables, Italian sausage, diavolo shrimp (super-spicy jumbo shrimp) or roasted meatballs; pastas — whole grain, traditional, gluten-free or spaghetti squash; sauces — pesto, creamy parmesan, marinara or pink vodka; sides (comes with grilled items, panino or salad) — parmesan roasted potato, side salad, grilled vegetables, Italian herb faro with crimini mushrooms, Italian rice, pistachio orange green beans or lemo- herb grilled cauliflower. Toppings include gorgonzola, parmesan, black olives, pine nuts, sundried tomatoes, marinated mozzarella, fresh parsley, artichoke hearts, cherry peppers and croutons.
While Ciao’s pasta choices were also vegan-friendly, I chose the spaghetti squash and a healthy dose of marinara, topped with Italian cherry peppers (a favorite of mine), sundried tomatoes, grilled veggies (peppers, yellow onion and Italian squash), parsley, pine nuts and artichokes hearts. If I do say so myself, my dish was a complementary blend of spicy, tangy, acidic and just that very mild crunch for texture from the pine nuts. While it may not be a genius combination, it made me happy and was just enough food to get me through the rest of the day. If I had to do it over again, I would see how much it would cost to get a spoonful of each of the sides. While they may not all be vegan-friendly, they sounded scrumptious.
My companion chose the sausage panino with Parmesan cream sauce topped with Italian peppers and gorgonzola, served with a side of roasted potatoes. His basic conclusion about his meal — satisfactory. And he said that for two reasons: 1. He was under the impression the panino came grilled, but it was not. 2. His sausage and potatoes were lukewarm. I suspect Allen and his employees would have fixed the issue with the second reason right away, but I was halfway through my meal when my companion spoke up. He just said that next time he would choose a pasta dish.
Overall, as we walked back to the car, I thought that this would be a great place if it was closer to where I lived or worked. It’s a fun concept at the right price (our bill, with one drink, came just to $20) so it’s worth a visit and it’s perfect for a quick lunch or dinner. Coming soon: desserts. And be sure to check out the soda machine. It reminds me of something I would have seen on Back to the Future Part II.