With the holiday season approaching and winter break for the University of the Hampshire just over the horizon, students are running out of time to enjoy all that the town of Durham has to offer before returning home. 

Whether it’s treating your parents to a nice local dinner while they’re in town or shooting that final shot in the midst of ‘cuffing season,’ students can’t go wrong with a visit to one of Durham’s newest restaurants, Ciao Italia Ristorante + Mercato. Having filled the spot of the former Irish pub The Knot when it opened over the summer, Ciao Italia brings a different atmosphere and dining experience than the typical environment of a college town.  

On these recent, unusually warm November nights, Ciao Italia has kept their outside seating available right on Main Street, allowing patrons to enjoy those last few outdoor meals of the year. Inside there is a warm and comfortable feel, with plenty of seating space to accommodate physical distancing, as well as barriers between booths that fit in with the decor. 

The food was super fresh right from the start – freshly made rolls were warm and fluffy on the inside, not too doughy. They were a light snack that weren’t too filling before the meal. One of the specials offered was a salad with plenty of different roasted vegetable toppings: red peppers, asparagus, wild mushrooms and zucchini, feta cheese, bacon and capers. The freshness of the arugula base was really enjoyable and the roasted veggies were well cooked but not overcooked. The salad was somewhat of a surprise to me, albeit a pleasant one. 

The menu has a pretty good balance of choices, but not too many, which is appreciated from a food lover’s standpoint. There’s a variety of pastas to accommodate anyone’s interests, but what’s great about Ciao Italia is they don’t just offer the run of the mill Italian food that you’d find in Italian American cuisine. They’re big on appreciation of real authentic Italian food, and that shows in the options on the menu. Rather than sticking to your ‘usual’ Italian order, especially if it’s something like chicken parmesan or spaghetti and meatballs, Ciao Italia is a great opportunity to try something a little bit different. The pesto dish was delicious – it wasn’t overwhelming like pesto can be sometimes – it had a subtle yet delightful flavor and the sauce itself was really creamy. 

Unable to decide on a pasta, (I was really interested in the bolognese) I went for the filet mignon. Just to have the option of getting a filet in Durham felt great to me on its own, and the meal itself didn’t disappoint. The meat was incredibly tender and the peppercorn and rosemary crust was the perfect complement. 

Ciao Italia is somewhere I’d love to go back to on a cold winter night – it’s so peaceful and comfortable in there with the warm lighting and upscale feel, and the food itself is the perfect variety of hot meals that hit the spot during the colder months. While it’s a restaurant that isn’t structured to accommodate that low college student budget, it’s absolutely still worth a visit, the food and the atmosphere makes the prices worthwhile (even better if you can get your parents or significant other to pay)! I’m not a huge wine person – they do have a big selection if you are – but for the beer, the Peroni on draft was so enjoyable. After spending some months abroad in London and coming back to the US, it was hard to find Peroni as good as it was in Europe, but Ciao Italia has the best Peroni I’ve had here to date – cold and fresh. 

It’s not the standard college town restaurant, and it’s not a place to go and grab drinks with a bunch of friends – but that’s okay – Ciao Italia is a much needed change of pace in Durham’s restaurant scheme. It may not be totally geared towards students in the way many of the local restaurants are, but students will still really enjoy Ciao Italia if they haven’t already visited. It’s the perfect place on campus to bring family or a date to dine-in, or if you need something on the go, they offer a curbside pickup menu with dishes that translate better to take out: a meatball sub with provolone, a chicken and pesto melt on focaccia, and even some pizzas! 

For students looking for a change of pace in their dining endeavors, or something a bit more upscale, there’s no need to look far for it. Ciao Italia is a perfect option for a nice authentic meal right in the heart of downtown Durham. If it’s something a bit less upscale but similarly quality food, Clark’s American Bistro opened just over a month ago right down the street! It’s still on my list of places I need to visit, but its development is that of a similar plan to Ciao Italia: the restaurant isn’t catered just to students, but students are more than welcome to visit and enjoy. If you decide to do so, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. 

Photos Courtesy of Evan Edmonds