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Artistic slant on bistro style.

IS GOOD food an art form? Some restaurants obviously think so, with the presentation of the dishes as important (and in some cases more so) as the quality of the meal itself.

I sometimes think you can be too precious about food presentation. After all, it is going to be off the plate in a matter of minutes and in your belly.

Here, though, you get both food and art, with no pretension.

Ciao Bella is situated in a former church hall which also serves as the exhibition space for Opus Art.

Do the two gel? An acclaimed art space and an Italian bistro? Yes, for the most part.

Walking into Ciao Bella, you are met first by the aforementioned art, with tables towards the back and up a small flight of stairs. It certainly beats walking into most cafe/restaurants and the surroundings are quite sublime.

I could have done without the dramatic music though - was it an installation? Whatever it was it didn't sit well with the bistro ambience.

So to the food itself. There is plenty of choice including light bites and more substantial fare.

Soup of the day (pounds 2.95) was spring vegetable, which three of us chose, while the fourth tried out the vegetarian bruschetta (pounds 3.45).

The soup, served with some toasted bread, came a light green colour and was brimming with flavours. It had a light, though not too watery, consistency, and all bowls were returned empty. A good sign.

There was much deliberation over main course and I decided to try the healthy-sounding insalata pollo (pounds 6.45), while the other mains we ordered were the lasagne al forno (pounds 4.45), tomato, mozzarella and basil panini (pounds 3.95) and penne pollo (pounds 5.75).

Other options included the tomato, mozzarella and aubergine stack, ricotta and spinach cannelloni (which they had run out of), insalata Meditteranea, parma ham tomato, mozzarella and basil panini and the grilled chicken panini with rocket and balsamic vinegar dressing.

While I am not overly-fussed about food presentation per se, I am very hot on all meals being served at the same time.

This did not happen on this occasion, with the penne coming first and then us having a good five-minute wait for all other meals to arrive.

It meant the diner had to delve into his penne before the others were ready in case it got cold.

As it happens there was little chance of this being anything other than hot thanks to the chilli which peppered the chicken, garlic, tomato and parsley.

There were mountains of the stuff, covered in the light but spicy sauce. The chicken pieces were thick and quite moist, which was a pleasant surprise as often meat can be dry when served in a pasta dish like this.

When my insalata pollo arrived, I too was pleased with the portions. The grilled chicken was in ample quantity and here presentation did make a difference.

On top of the bed of mixed leaves, there was a layer of peppers, on top of which was the chicken. The dish had very little dressing, but it did not need it.

The chicken was superb, the mixed leaves flavoursome and the peppers soft and bursting with taste.

The panini came served with a hefty portion of chips, which we all helped devour.

The bread was perfectly toasted and there was just the right amount of tomato, cheese and herbs baked in the middle of it.

We all agreed, though, that the best dish chosen was the lasagne al forno.

I try to steer clear of lasagne in restaurants as I always find it a boring choice, much as I actually love the dish.

This lasagne, though, looked different from the off. It was not served in an oven dish as you might expect - rather it was plumped on the plate on its ownsome lonesome, just waiting to be eaten..

There were no frills, just a slab of lasagne that actually resembled some kind of loaf! That was until you cut into it. There was meat a-plenty, layers of lasagne and a perfectly executed sauce. Somehow the lasagne was both rich and light, and all but the vegetarian at the table had a bite of it.

A good meal was had by all, but there are some niggles Ciao Bella could do with sorting out.

I've already mentioned the background music and if it is part of an installation then I suppose that cannot be helped.

The other niggle though was the constant 'bashing' of the nearby coffee machine.

Ciao Bella is only open day times and does provide for a different kind of dining experience.

A few tweaks here and there could put Ciao Bella in the frame.
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 29, 2009
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