After a five-year absence from the local restaurant scene, Ciao Bella Ristorante and chef/owner Chau Nguyen have returned to Modesto, pleasing longtime customers and newcomers seeking authentic Italian cuisine.
Formerly at H Street and 13th Avenue in Modesto, Ciao Bella opened up in November at the Century Center at 2401 E. Orangeburg Ave., presenting a Mediterranean ambiance and European flair inside.
“I just missed the atmosphere and people – the whole environment,” said Nguyen, who closed the doors to the original location due to the dip in the economy. “It’s the only job where I get so many compliments in a day.”
Since he reopened his kitchen, he hasn’t had a slow night.
Nguyen, a 1984 Viet Nam refugee and a 1999 Modesto High grad, said he built the restaurant to be a cozy, friendly establishment using fresh ingredients and making everything from scratch.
“It may take a bit longer, but it is made to order,” Nguyen said. “We want people to come here and not want to leave.”
Don’t let Nguyen’s Asian heritage fool you, as he got his start preparing Italian cuisine at the Mediterranean Market and Grille where he spent eight years and was mentored by former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino and some of the finest Italian chefs in the area.
“I grew a passion for food and to create those authentic flavors that made people happy,” Nguyen said.
Ciao Bella features an assortment of made from scratch Italian pasta dishes and traditional dinners with daily specials that are reasonably priced, ranging from $12 to $21.
The stuffed calamari is a customer favorite and according to Nguyen, isn’t made anywhere else in the area.
The entrée is served with rolled calamari stuffed with shrimp and crab, garlic, fresh herbs and mozzarella cheese. It is then breaded and baked served with a wine and cream sauce with a vegetable and garlic mashed potatoes.
“It’s like a cordon bleu with seafood,” said Nguyen.
Another patron chosen dish is the seafood pasta prepared with clams, scallops, mussels, prawns and salmon over linguini with a garlic and white wine sauce.
Ciao Bella also offers a tender filet mignon topped with garlic, onions, and mushrooms with a melted gorgonzola also served with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables.
Nguyen said he frequents farmers’ markets and local fruit stands for fresh ingredients and avoids corporate food suppliers for his produce. He also seeks local meat and seafood sellers to supply the restaurant.
This something extra sets their cuisine apart from other restaurants whose “race to the bottom” on food costs often leaves both flavor and the natural goodness of a meal out of the whole equation.
Nguyen’s tale of coming to the U.S. is straight out of the Great American Success Story.
At age five in 1984, his family, along with others, fled Viet Nam in his father’s fishing boat facing danger and hardship from pirates, the overcrowded boat and storms.
The boat was adrift for a few days and they were finally rescued by the USS Blue Ridge inside the South China Sea.
“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today,” Nguyen said. “I’m very grateful.”
The family was sponsored and briefly stayed in Oklahoma until moving to Modesto in 1987.
To remind himself of his journey, Nguyen keeps photos of the rescue and his family from Viet Nam to keep him “humble” so he won’t forget where he came from.
“It’s been a blessing coming from a third world country to America, to the land of opportunity,” Nguyen said. “To have many loyal customers that follow and support me is wonderful.”Ciao Bella Ristorante
2401 E. Orangeburg Ave., Suite 320
Lunch: 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Dinner: 4 p.m. - 10 p.m.