Ciao makes a good first impression in former Baxter Station spot

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Margherita pizza at newly opened Ciao Ristorante, in the former location of Baxter Station. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

For more than three years, the shotgun-style structure at the corner of Payne and Cooper streets sat empty. Rumors swirled about what might become of the building that once housed the popular Baxter Station Bar & Grill, a restaurant beloved by the neighborhood and many others.

Finally, in recent weeks, it reopened as Ciao Ristorante, an Italian bistro helmed by Luigi Gelsomini, who for years has operated Luigi’s Pizzeria & Pasta in downtown Louisville. The space has been gutted and reinvented into an impressive, modern bar and restaurant with some solid food to go along with it.

I stopped in for dinner on a weeknight and found only a few people inhabiting the space, which consists of steel and reclaimed wood, with plenty of rivets, forged steel hooks and Edison lighting, giving the bar area an almost steampunk vibe.

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The front dining room and bar area of Ciao Ristorante includes a special pizza and bread kitchen. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

The bar is still in the same corner near the Payne Street entrance, with the main entrance and host stand located by the side, or Cooper Street, entrance. Those who enter by the latter will be facing a pizza and bread station; the rest of the fare is prepared in the original kitchen in the back.

Finally, the back dining area, which once operated more as a patio, has been completely rebuilt into more of a family dining experience, with bright orange seats interrupting the industrial theme in the rest of the space.

My girlfriend Cynthia and I entered by the bar, which was confusing at first. Luckily, a manager, who later introduced himself as Matt, was there to show us to the host stand. After some confusion as to who would be serving us, Matt brought us two tall glasses of water, and our server approached.

Choosing from the menu wasn’t easy, as it offers a balanced array of appetizers (iniziare), salads (verdure), “classic fare” (classic) such as baked lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs, pastas, entrees (terra y mare), and pizzas. In order to try more flavors, we decided to split a couple of appetizers and share a pizza. There also is craft beer, a full bar and a fairly impressive wine list that includes port and dessert wines, but we decided to stick with water.

Ravioli ingredients rotate at Ciao.

Ravioli fillings rotate at Ciao. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

We started the meal off with an order of toasted ravioli, featuring fillings that “rotate often,” per the menu. The ravioli came out first, featuring six pieces (orders of 12 also are available) — three square and three round.

The square pieces seemed to contain mozzarella, while the round, slightly larger mini-pies, contained spinach and ricotta — well, best we could tell, anyway. It didn’t really matter, because both were delicious, and perfectly toasted.

The ravioli was served with an ample supply of house marinara, which was a tangy, chunky sauce that acts as a base to many of the dishes at Ciao — it’s clearly freshly made and quite good. We saved the leftovers for use with our pizza crust and were glad we did so.

Next up was the monkey bread, which rotates in terms of ingredients and themes based on the chef’s whim, much like with the ravioli. Even though it’s almost Thanksgiving, we were surprised that the monkey bread of the day included turkey and sweet potatoes.

The sharable bread pockets came with a giblet gravy with green onions and other vegetables mixed in, while each pocket of the delicious bread contained sliced turkey and tender sweet potatoes. It was quite an interesting experience, especially for an Italian restaurant. At one point, Cynthia mused it was like a “Thanksgiving pierogi.”

Our 12-inch margherita pizza was the finale, and it came topped with slices of tomato, shredded basil and plenty of mozzarella atop a doughy crust that was cooked on the bottom to a golden brown but remained less toasted at the crust. The basil was proportioned nicely, the cheese was tasty, and the tomatoes added that necessary third dimension. A solid pie.

Ciao monkey bread, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Ciao monkey bread, just in time for Thanksgiving | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Matt informed us during a visit to our table that all the dough and sauces are made fresh in-house. The bread was tasty to be sure, though it was a bit doughy and not always firm enough to hold the toppings. (Still, the edges were delicious dipped into the leftover marinara.)

There’s plenty more of the menu to explore, from lamb Bolognese to the scampi pizza to the Ciao meatball (there’s even a Ciao burger), and the atmosphere truly is worth a stop, even if it’s just for a glass of wine or a cocktail with an appetizer.

And above all, it’s nice to see that spot finding a new life after several years of waiting.

Hours at Ciao, 1201 Payne St., are Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; and Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. (closed Sunday).