Cibo couples Italian classics with kinder, gentler atmosphere Terry Kirts
Pasta shrimp with crab sauce
When I reviewed Cibo’s predecessor, Vizion, in April of 2004, I used such phrases as “oozes style,” “otherworldly” and “funky” to describe what was, by many measures, one of the most fashion-forward dining spaces in the city. I noted, of course, the wine tower, the spare but elegant décor and the wall of Lucite panels that gradually changed colors as we ate, revising the ambience throughout the evening. About its cuisine, I said it was “subtly innovative,” “artful” and “expertly prepared.” A pheasant breast atop a rustic corn cake ranked among my most interesting meals of the entire year. Admittedly, it was a Tuesday when I first dined there, but the throngs weren’t exactly flocking to this vision of high design and haute cuisine. While things picked up on the weekends, most of the buzz about the place was for Vapor Lounge, the bustling nightclub upstairs. So, I wasn’t surprised when a renovation was announced last fall, especially when the concept for the soon-to-be-made-over space was such a safe bet as Italian. But I was intrigued with how much this new place was promising. An aggressive campaign of radio ads, billboards and daily announcements in my e-mail inbox asserted that this would be “the Italian experience” in Indianapolis. To compare before and after pictures at Cibo is to see two radically different takes on restaurant couture. The bony, Kate Moss-like angles of Vizion have given way to the soft, loveable curves of a Hollywood doll like Reese Witherspoon. Windows are now hung with heavy golden draperies, gathered into thick folds. Amber lanterns hang at different heights, casting a healthy glow on diners below. Gone is the Technicolor dream wall; in its place are plush fabric squares in muted reds and greens. It’s still an elegant eatery, but with all of this intentional softening and channeling of Tuscan romanticism, this place has lost its edge. Given all of the superlatives that Cibo employed in promoting itself, one might think the cuisine here would help Indianapolis diners rethink what Italian cuisine can be. While the entrees all have Italian names, you can get the same things in English all over the city. Brick oven “pizze,” for instance, aren’t a whole lot different from the ones you could have delivered. The “ogni cosa” ($12) features such familiar toppings as pepperoni, mushroom and green pepper. A “quattro formaggio” ($10) we ordered for an appetizer had so much cheese, none of it very flavorful, that it turned the crust soggy. Promised shavings of parmigiano reggiano had either melted or were missing from our pie. Our oft-absent, then all-too-present waiter assumed the roll of frank confidant, telling us too much about his life and admitting too many secrets of Cibo’s kitchen. When we inquired about the “vegetable of the day,” for instance, he opined, “It’s broccoli. It used to change, but now it’s broccoli all of the time.” The one favor he did us was putting us in touch with a bottle of Mondragon Valpolicella ($28), a well-balanced vintage that paired nicely with just about everything we consumed. Prices for most items are quite reasonable, with only a few entrées crossing the $20 mark. While the menu is presented in traditional Italian courses, it isn’t too fussy about this, including soup or a salad with each main course. Unfortunately, the “insalata mista” had a shocking proportion of iceberg, and an oily balsamic dressing made it hard to finish. Soup, described by our waiter as stew with chicken, was hearty enough but without any real character or kick. With entrees, we did find some highlights beyond your typical neighborhood trattoria. A juicy pork tenderloin ($16) was medium, just as we’d ordered it, with a noticeable spice rub and a sweet but not cloying brandy apricot sauce. Garlicky spinach and sautéed spinach made apt accompaniments. The parpadelle oceano ($17) with meaty shrimp and plentiful crab in a lush cream sauce also impressed. Seared tuna ($22) with a caponata of olives and pine nuts was a generous filet quite raw, almost cold, inside. But the relish was so busy and a bit dry that it didn’t really meld well with the seafood. Pollo basilico ($18) was a whopping entrée of chicken breasts with plenty of artichokes, mushrooms and basil. A watery white wine sauce, however, swamped the whole dish. Tiramisu, our waiter’s favorite, was less a layered affair than a cup of sweet cream garnished with three ladyfingers. It had only a light hit of chocolate and no real bite of alcohol. By contrast, the fudgy chocolate mousse ($6), formed here into a cake, was an enviably decadent finale. House-made gelati ($5) were also quite good, but the banana version was so artificial as to be inedible. While Cibo’s makeover has clearly worked in the eyes of Indy diners, who crammed the place, a lot seems lost in the translation to Italian. Instead of standing out, Cibo’s softer touch and classic cuisine make it too much like so many other restaurants around town.