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Ciao Baby review

Mussels, clams, baby shrimp and calamari are abundant

Mussels, clams, baby shrimp and calamari are abundant in the zuppa di pesce as served at Ciao Baby restaurant in Commack. (Aug. 7, 2012) Credit: Doug Young

This past January, Heather West, season two winner of Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," became executive chef at the Ciao Baby restaurants in Commack and Massapequa Park. Her mission: to revitalize the faltering eateries, characterized by their Rat Pack vibe and outsize portions.

First, West added to the menu a selection of "Ciao baby plates," geared to human — rather than monster — appetites. Good move. Not so good: She must divide her time between two restaurants. The difference in food when West is physically present and when she's not can be dramatic.

A visit to Commack, where I ordered from the new "baby plates" roster, began with a plate of ricotta-topped mini rice balls — ground beef, peas, risotto and marinara. Rich and robust, they were as good as — if not better than — the boccie ball the place has become known for. A calamari trio — fried squid topped with sweet chili sauce, marinara and Gorgonzola — proved a big hit. Less alluring were "angry" shrimp, heavily battered shellfish in a crimson garlic-chili sauce unleashing more sweetness than anger. Overcooked capellini undermined an otherwise vibrant zuppa di pesce — mussels, clams, baby shrimp and calamari in a bright marinara. The flop of the night was a lump crabcake with what was billed as a white bean and mango salsa. What I got was mush topped with more mush; inedible.

Yet the same pan-seared crabcake, ordered in Massapequa with West in the kitchen, turned out firm and flavorful, if a tad salty, its salsa topping fruity and mellow. West's signature entree, Grandma's eggplant lasagna, was actually a mille-feuille of thinly sliced eggplant with mozzarella, marinara and ricotta — airy, harmonious and a joy to eat. The meal concluded with a vanilla pudding tart laced and topped with fresh bananas and cubes of moist blondies. Wearing a cap of freshly whipped cream, it was nothing less than a knockout.

For now, West doesn't work on Mondays; she's in Massapequa Park Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and in Commack Sunday, Thursday and Friday. Be smart and call before you go.

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