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.