It's not always easy to stand out from the crowd, especially in the small section of downtown Campbell where a former Odd Fellows hall and adjacent parking lot have been transformed into three restaurants, whose sidewalk patios blend seamlessly, giving the appearance of an al fresco food court.
But Ciano's is doing all it can to draw in diners, with its patio doors flung open to reveal an interior with vibrant primary colors and attractive, modern lighting and art.
The electric colors are matched by a menu of bold flavors, described as "modern Latin" and ranging from the molés of Mexico to Argentine steaks and the cevichés of Peru.
Silicon Valley native Mario Lleverino, who has a long history in restaurant management, opened Ciano's last summer. Executive Chef Ricardo Ramirez interned under renowned chef Rick Bayless as part of his extensive culinary training.
Ciano's has a sizable dining room with a small patio extension that's ideal for summer. A knee wall separates diners from the large bar area, with its hearty sports-bar atmosphere. That, combined with dance music, servers dressed in short, strappy frocks and the vibrant interior, creates a nightclub vibe, especially after the sun goes down.
On our first visit, we skipped the wine list, which is long on South American selections, in favor of cocktails, namely sangrias. The mango sangria ($9) was good but on the sweet side, thanks to rum and triple sec; we found Ciano's sangria ($10) the better bet. If two or more people want sangria, order a pitcher ($40); you'll definitely want more than one glass.
The popular starter El Trio ($9) features house-fried root chips paired with three dips. The chips were slicked with oil, and some were chewy, rather than crisp. The guacamole was fairly standard, but the black bean hummus and the salsa huevona were especially good. If the salsa -- made with charred tomatoes, chilis and onions -- were sold in containers, we'd definitely have taken some home.
The empanada ($11) had tender pastry with a savory filling of ground beef, cheese, olives and capers. Although the arugula salad's dressing was too salty, overall this dish is a good bet.
Not so the aguachile ($12) on the night we tried them. Four appetizer spoons came filled with bay scallop, shaved jicama and radish in a fiery serrano-infused cucumber water. The result was spicier than some people would find enjoyable, and the minuscule scallops tasted of too-old fish, while the citrus flavor had unfortunate chemical overtones.
In some main courses, key flavors tended to get lost. Almost every dish we tried could have been improved by removing at least one element from the plate. For instance, the menu indicated the Chimichurri steak ($19) would be served with a corn and coriander emulsion. But amid the sweet potato puree and the chimichurri, the emulsion nearly got lost. Too bad, since it was a really nice sauce, overwhelmed by the busy plate.
The steak itself, which arrived nearly rare, rather than medium-rare, was so chewy that after a few bites my jaws began to ache. Several pieces of the greens served with it had not been cut.
Smoky adobo sauce couldn't mask that the chicken ($17) was overly charred, but miraculously it remained moist inside. The cheese croquettes served on the side tasted mostly of masa, with little hint of cheese.
The enormous double cut pork chop ($27), recommended by our server, was one of the best dishes we tried. Through the sauce was heavy with clove, the brine of the juicy chop helped balance the flavor. It came with purple marble potatoes.
Another pleasing main course was the braised lamb ($28), which fell easily from the shank. The light polenta cake with this dish was another highlight, but as with the pork chop, the molé was nearly overpowered, in this case, by cumin.
Pastry chef Stephanie Lanzo has created probably the most eye popping dessert I've ever laid eyes on with the Sueño de Sangria ($9). Its colors reflect the restaurant's vibrant decor, and the flavors pay homage to sangria. The mousse and cake, colored bright blue with edible paint and combined with an orange bourbon jam, are nice. The palate cleanser -- a lemon ice cream with lime caviar, however, didn't do the job. The final note, a bourbon ball, was bitter and chalky.
Consolation, however, came with the terrific bread pudding fritters ($10). Laced with cinnamon and rolled in toasted coconut, they were lightly sweet and delicious. They were served with a salted chocolate sauce and coconut ice cream.
Though the restaurant was nearly full on both visits, service was relatively quick. It's possible at Ciano's to have a fine meal, provided you order the best dishes. But for every hit, there appears to be a miss. If Ciano's aspires to be a true stand-out, it must strive for more consistency from the kitchen.
E-mail Jennifer Graue at email@example.com.
280 E. Campbell Ave., Campbell; 408-871-1939, cianosmodernlatin.com
The Dish: This addition to downtown Campbell features a menu of pan-Latin dishes and a festive atmosphere that seems made for happy hour with friends.
Prices: Appetizers and salads, $6-$15; sandwiches, $9-$14; main dishes, $15-$28; desserts, $6-$12; cocktails and wines by the glass $7-$14, by the bottle $25-$110
Details: Silicon Valley native Mario Lleverino opened the restaurant in the former Odd Fellows hall after many years of restaurant management experience with two large chains. Chef Ricardo Ramirez's menu features dishes and ingredients whose origins span from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego.
Pluses: Good atmosphere; bright, cheerful and airy, if a bit noisy. The sangria is really tasty.
Minuses: Inconsistent quality from the kitchen
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30-9:30; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Policy: Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously; the Mercury News pays for all meals