Durham’s authentic Italian restaurant Ciao Italia Ristorante + Mercato rebranded to Ciao Trattoria and Wine Bar and rolled out its updated menu this week. 

The challenges of running a restaurant in the climate of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have led owner Doug Clark to rebrand the restaurant and its style to both accommodate the Durham community’s desires during the pandemic and stay true to the vision he had for the restaurant from the beginning. Ciao Trattoria and Wine Bar seeks to maintain an upscale, authentic image, maintaining lots of quality choices for food and wine, while now offering a more casual feel and added emphasis on frequent dining and takeout. 

When Clark prepared to open Ciao Italia last year, he made all the necessary preparations to start a restaurant up in the midst of a pandemic. With the proper air quality systems, glass partitions between each booth, a weekly cleaning crew and more, Ciao Italia and its staff were prepared for the force of the pandemic. 

However, the circumstances of the pandemic after a year have persisted, and while Clark said there have been plenty “glimmers of hope,” Ciao Italia was not meeting the levels of its projected success. He said he believes the concept – a high-class, fully authentic Italian fine dining experience – would have worked in normal circumstances, but due to the unusual ones at this time “they had to make changes.” 

Clark still seeks to stay true to his original goal, he said, which was to bring an “adult restaurant” to Durham, where local residents and families can enjoy community and authentic Italian food. Those elements will remain, especially with the intent to form a full-scale wine bar in the future. It will remain a “civilized” place to eat, he said, with the fine dining experience still an option if patrons so choose. 

The rebranding will bring down the high-class aspect of Ciao a bit – meaning a more casual indoor setting, with new bistro lighting to bring more energy to the dining area. Clark acknowledged that the average price of a check at Ciao Italia was typically a bit more expensive for individuals and families to do often, so the new menu is set to offer more affordable and traditional Italian-American options as well to make it possible for patrons to visit more frequently if they’d like.  

Ciao Trattoria and Wine Bar will be offering Chicken Parmesan, a classic “non-authentic” option, as well as pizza regularly on the dinner menu as a means of meeting the public’s requests. 

In November, Clark introduced a new head chef, Spencer McMillin, who has helped Ciao adjust to the pandemic focused methods of business as well as transition into the rebranding period. Clark said McMillin has been great with implementing more takeout options and family meals. He said embracing takeout is necessary in times like these, and that McMillin’s adjustments have “quadrupled,” takeout business since he joined the team. 

In a Facebook post, McMillin said they have “pivoted and reimagined” the restaurant. They hope to build a new client base and appeal to regulars by “lowering prices, adding creative, chef-inspired food along with familiar dishes,” he wrote.  

McMillin told The New Hampshire, “right now, it’s important to serve the community. Fine dining is expensive to pull off [for restaurants] and for restaurant patrons. What we’re trying to do by rebranding is bring more people to our tables. We want to shed the fine dining reputation of Ciao Italia in favor of a more inclusive, inexpensive and family friendly format.” 

According to McMillin, a trattoria is a warm and inviting restaurant built with that emphasis on an welcoming family atmosphere – exactly what Ciao Trattoria intends to embody for the Durham community. 

In addition to the new menu plan, Clark said Ciao Trattoria also plans on offering some new special nights to entice new customers. Some of these ideas include a $10 spaghetti and meatballs take-out deal geared towards students, half off wine Wednesdays and pizza Thursdays.  

Going forward, Ciao Trattoria will continue to add to and adapt to accommodate the local community. Clark said he is “anxious for [COVID-19] to end,” and looking forward to reopening outside seating when the weather permits. He said the outdoor igloo experiment was successful, as people did like it, but New Hampshire’s weather, wind in particular, made the igloo a challenging tool to use. Ciao Trattoria has also begun accepting reservations on OpenTable. While Clark said he prefers the “personal touch,” of calling in to make a reservation, OpenTable makes it possible for people to make their reservation whenever they want throughout the day, even when no one is working. 

Clark described running two new restaurants, the other being Clark’s American Bistro, during the pandemic as a “very stressful.” experience. He said the business between the two is generally similar: when it’s busy at Ciao it tends to be busy at Clark’s American Bistro, and vice versa. He said new businesses don’t qualify for the coronavirus relief programs that are meant to help restaurants, which has been frustrating. 

“All the programs require you to look at your 2019 revenue and compare it to 2020 and show that you’re making less,” Clark said. Since Ciao and Clark’s weren’t open in 2019, they don’t have the numbers to compare to 2020’s business during the pandemic, meaning they’re left to fend for themselves without the benefits of these programs. “It’s been a bit of a challenge,” he said. 

The new menu has kicked off this week, and as mentioned on the Ciao Trattoria Facebook page, Clark and his team “hope to continue to spread happiness and customer satisfaction to the Durham area.” 

Photos courtesy of Doug Clark.