Talia Castrogiovanni smiles when she thinks back to the first five years as owner of Ciao Bella, a popular Italian restaurant, 6500 E. Riverside Blvd., Loves Park.
“It’s been a series of trial and error,” she says. “It’s going well, but, like anything, it could always be better.”
In the competitive restaurant industry, perseverance and patience are keys to success. Talia and her staff have experienced plenty of both in the past five years, and they’re not afraid to try new things – and make mistakes – all in the name of providing a high-quality dining experience for customers.
“We have a loyal group of customers, many of whom are age 50 and older,” Talia says. “Many of them, however, leave Rockford for the winter so we’re trying to reach a different demographic. We’re trying to entice younger customers to experience Ciao Bella. Many things have helped draw younger customers including adding entertainment, offering drink specials and free appetizers in the bar Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. All we ask is people come in and give Ciao Bella a try.”
It had always been Talia’s dream to open her own restaurant, even though her father tried to talk her out of it.
“I told her that it’s a lifestyle, it’s not a job,” says Nick Castrogiovanni.
Good thing his daughter didn’t listen to dear old dad.
Talia’s family is well experienced in the food business. Her great grandfather started a meat market in 1919, which later became Hilander Foods. In 1977, her grandfather opened Giovanni’s, which Nick managed for 12 years, before selling it to relatives in 1989. Talia worked at Hilander during high school, and later worked at various restaurants during college. Talia’s older brother, Nikko, is her kitchen manager. Younger brother, Reno, lives in Indianapolis and works in the hotel business.
At 24, Talia fulfilled her dream when she opened Ciao Bella, which compares favorable to Francesca’s on Taylor and The Rosebud, two well-known Italian spots in Chicago.
“Our plan was to create a niche,” says Talia. “We wanted to offer original, Italian food at affordable prices. We felt it was important to have the best cuisine, and keep it budget friendly for everyone.”
Lunch and dinner specialties include pizza, pasta, salads and seafood. Among the popular entrees is seasonal seafood including halibut and sea bass. There’s also salmon Izzabella, grilled and topped with a light lemon cream sauce, chopped asparagus, capers, tomatoes and a side of garlic allioli linguini. Dinner ranges from $11 to $22.
“We serve home-cooked Italian food with deep red sauces, hearty soups and homemade pastas,” Talia says. “Our tomato sauces start here in the kitchen.”
For lunch, Ciao Bella offers a $7 sandwich and endless soup. “We’re known for express lunches,” says Talia. “Business people can get their meal within 10 minutes and still make it back to work within the hour.”
Ciao Bella also serves gluten free and vegan options. There’s a children’s menu; all kids get a scoop of gelato, an Italian ice cream, following their meal. Specials are offered nightly. A lunch and dinner carry out menu is also available.
Talia pays particular attention to her customers’ requests. It was her clientele, she says, who asked for and received chicken salad sandwiches, salmon salads and hamburger salads.
Talia says the biggest boost to the menu has been the return of Nikko, who moved back home from Las Vegas a year ago. “He has made a huge difference,” she says. “It’s nice to have him back.”
Nikko has refined the menu to include weekly specials such as seafood and flatbread pizzas. Not bad for someone who is self taught and has never attended culinary school. “He’s come up with some things people really like,” Talia says. “He’s constantly looking for ways to impress people, but in an affordable way. He makes it fun and comfortable around here. I’m proud of the job he has done.”
Adds Nikko: “Ciao Bella is noticeably acclaimed for providing high-quality Italian American cuisine in a casual atmosphere at a reasonable price. It’s a pride and joy to have an opportunity to do what I do. We have a good thing going here.”
Another new addition to the kitchen is actually something old. When Maria’s, another popular restaurant, closed its doors last year, Ciao Bella acquired its broilers to use in its kitchen. Customers have noticed a difference, especially with its steaks. “People rave about our steaks now,” Talia says. “You notice the difference in taste, moisture and flavor. It’s been awesome having a piece of nostalgia from Maria’s here. I have wonderful memories of going to Maria’s as a young girl. It was so warm and inviting there.”
So is the décor at Ciao Bella. 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 soft music, mixed with table chatter, completes the soothing ambiance. “I wanted a place that was cozy and comfortable,” Talia says.
The bar and dining area seats about 120 guests, and a private dining room, which also serves as a wine room, can accommodate 60. The restaurant holds a wine dinner in the private room for 32 guests every other month.
“The private dining room is ideal for board meetings or birthday or anniversary parties,” Talia says. “We can even seat a party of four there if the main dining room is full.” There’s no charge for the use of the private dining room.
The newest addition to the restaurant is a wall of fame that showcases plenty of photos of happy customers enjoying time spent over a good meal and conversation. Ciao Bella now features a piano player who comes in to play a few times a week. Even Nick has started taking lessons in hopes of one day entertaining guests. “Customers love it,” Talia says. “They start drinking and singing. It’s a good time.”
Recently, Ciao Bella has seen a spike in customers who stop in after a workout at Peak Fitness and other nearby health clubs. New businesses, such as auto dealerships and health care facilities, along East Riverside Boulevard, have also helped draw in new crowds.
Ciao Bella also believes in giving back to the community. Last year, for example, the restaurant held its first golf outing to benefit Healing Pathways Cancer Resource Center, a Rockford-based nonprofit organization. “It’s important to give back to the community,” Talia says. “We have a great responsibility to help those in need.”
After all, being in the restaurant business is all about people.
“I love our customers,” says Talia, who is greeted by fresh flowers every Monday from a longtime customer. “That’s what is so great about this business. It’s fun to meet new people. Not a day goes by when someone comes in for the first time. I can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.”