Whether you’re in the mood for flatbread pizza, pasta or chicken parmesan, Ciao Bella provides an authentic Italian dining experience. Read about this restaurant owner’s passion for food, which is reflected in its unique dishes.
Talia Castrogiovanni has always had a passion for food.
Her great-grandfather started a meat market in Rockford in 1919, which later became Hilander Foods. In 1977, her grandfather opened Giovanni’s Restaurant, also in Rockford, which her father, Nick, managed for 12 years before selling it to relatives.
So, in March 2009, at just 24, Castrogiovanni followed in their footsteps and opened Ciao Bella, a popular Italian restaurant at 6500 E. Riverside Blvd., Loves Park.
“All I know is food, so I figured, let’s try it,” she says. “It’s been a lot of trial and error and it’s been a big learning experience as far as dealing with customers and paying bills, licenses, permits, everything like that. But it’s been fun, like learning how to do the different catering events we’ve been doing.”
Castrogiovanni worked at Hilander during high school, then at various restaurants during college.
“This is pretty much my business experience,” she says. “I’ve been a bartender, a server and I’ve worked in a grocery store. Food is my passion and it’s what I know.”
That passion is reflected in Ciao Bella’s food. Lunch and dinner specialties include pizza, pasta, salads and seafood.
Among the popular entrees is Salmon Izzabella, grilled and topped with a light lemon cream sauce, chopped asparagus, capers, tomatoes and a side of garlic allioli linguine.
“That salmon is a top seller,” Castrogiovanni says. “It’s really good and it’s reasonably priced.”
Another common dish is the Chicken Parmigiana. Your chicken comes breaded or grilled and is served with pomodoro sauce and melted mozzarella, with a side of spaghetti.
Castrogiovanni likes putting a twist on some of the menu options. For instance, the macaroni-and-cheese includes a five-cheese blend, prosciutto and is baked with breadcrumbs.
“I try to do a new dinner menu at least two times a year,” Castrogiovanni says. “We don’t switch it up that much, but I like to keep track of sales so I know what is selling and what doesn’t.”
For lunch, Ciao Bella offers a $7 sandwich and endless soup option – ideal for people coming from nearby banks and law offices looking for a quick meal.
“We’re known for our express lunches and our soups are homemade,” Castrogiovanni says. “Business people can get their meal within 10 minutes and make it back to work within the hour.”
Gluten-free and vegan options are also available, along with a children’s menu and nightly specials. A lunch and dinner carry-out menu is also available.
The décor at Ciao Bella takes its cue from Italian country. The walls are a rich gold and burgundy. Tables and chairs are cinnamon oak. Recessed, track and pendant lighting warm up the atmosphere.
The restaurant has an updated bar menu, which features a large wine selection and signature cocktails. There’s also video gambling available.
“We’re starting to go a lot less formal,” Castrogiovanni says. “We’re trying to give out the impression that we’re not expensive, not as formal and we’re kid-friendly.”
Cozy, but roomy, the bar and dining area seats about 120 guests, and a private dining room, which also serves as a wine room, can accommodate 60.
“There’s no charge for the room, and no deposit,” Castrogiovanni says. “It’s ideal for board meetings, birthdays or anniversary parties.”
One thing Castrogiovanni looks forward to each day is seeing her customers, especially the regulars.
“Our customer service separates this place from other restaurants,” she says. “If I’m not at every table, my dad makes it a point to visit every table. We like to greet everyone and thank them for coming here. I love my customers and I love my regulars.”
Castrogiovanni also welcomes all types of feedback.
“If something doesn’t taste good, we want to fix it,” she says. “We’re right here if something is wrong because my dad and I work in the restaurant hands on.”
Ciao Bella is open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat., 5-9 p.m.; Sun. 4-7:30 p.m. ❚