Owner Talia Castrogiovanni with her father, Nick Castrogiovanni.

Favorite Italian Dishes With a Twist at Ciao Bella

Restaurant Profile: This restaurant owner’s family history in the food industry gave her a head start on her own business.

Owner Talia Castrogiovanni with her father, Nick Castrogiovanni. (Dustin Waller photo)

“Our plan was to create a niche,” says Talia Castrogiovanni, owner of Ciao Bella, 6500 E. Riverside Blvd., Loves Park, Ill. “We wanted a menu that offers Italian cooking that’s a little different from the dishes we’ve always enjoyed at the great Italian restaurants in Rockford, and at a great value.”

Castrogiovanni has always worked around food. “My great-grandfather started a meat market in 1919. It grew to become Hilander Foods,” she says. “In 1977, my grandfather opened Giovanni’s, and my dad ran it for 12 years before selling it.”

Her first jobs were in the Hilander stores, and she worked part-time in various restaurants during college. “Bartending, bussing, serving and food prep – I enjoyed all aspects of the restaurant industry. My dad used to tell me, ‘You just might be a natural; but the restaurant business is tough.’”

So when she suggested opening a restaurant, her father, Nick, tried to talk her out of it.

“He told me I have to remember that this isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle. It can be consuming, so I better love it.”

And love it she does. Her enthusiasm is reflected in the friendly staff and inviting feel of the place. The décor takes its cue from Italian country; the walls are finished in aux fresco and painted in rich gold and burgundy. Tables and chairs are cinnamon oak. Recessed, track, and pendant lighting enhance the atmosphere, while traditional Italian music, sprinkled with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, completes the mood.

Cozy but roomy, the bar and dining area can seat about 120 guests. An additional private dining room can accommodate 60, and there’s no additional charge for its use.

The wine list ranges from $15 a bottle for house, to $98 for top shelf. “We have great choices, but we keep it affordable,” says Castrogiovanni. She often provides samples of wines that pair nicely with specific dishes. “Many local people are quite knowledgeable about wine; They know value, variety, and enjoy expanding their tasting horizons.”

Together with his staff, Head Chef Miguel Mora, a 2006 graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, is a firm believer in freshness. Castrogiovanni says, “We serve hardy, home-cooked Italian food with a Northern influence – deep red sauces, robust soups and homemade pastas. Our tomato sauces start here in our kitchen and are the foundation that we build upon. Our Bolognese and pomodoro sauces are low in acid, with no added sugar – just a little chicken stock to soften the taste. Vegetables for the soups, meats we put in the sauces and pasta dishes – all of our ingredients are whole and fresh.”

Specials are offered every night: $2 house wines and draft beers on Monday; $3 off pizza appetizers on Tuesday; veal Gorgonzola on Wednesday; eggplant Parmesan on Thursday; fried tilapia on Fridays; New York strip steak on Saturdays. Castrogiovanni says she listens closely to her customers, responds to their requests and tracks sales carefully. The most popular item? Spaghetti Bolognese. That’s why it’s just $8 Monday through Thursday.

Menus are updated seasonally, and Castrogiovanni is in the process of expanding her lunch menu. The $6 sandwich and endless soup is especially popular, she says. “We always have minestrone, and a soup of the day,” says Castrogiovanni.  “The sandwich is on fresh ciabatta bread and it’s huge. Our new additions include burgers, grinders, omelets, pizzas and some new salads.

“A good, affordable meal, in a gracious atmosphere, close to home. That’s what I want to give.” ❚