(FROM LEFT): The blue crab gnocchi at Ciro Food and Drink on the Wilmington Riverfront.; Roasted bone marrow, a split beef shank served with balsamic onion marmalade, herbs and crostini.//photos by Joe del tufo
A word to the wise: If you’re inclined to order so decadent a dish as roasted bone marrow at the new Ciro Food and Drink on the Riverfront, do it early in your meal, because you will want to enjoy every silky, delicious bite, and that will not be possible if you, like we, stuff yourself silly with several so-called small plates—small plates that are especially rich—before you experience that particular heaven.
I should have not been so imprudent. I knew chef Michael DiBianca’s dish to be a sure bet, having enjoyed it back when he owned the popular Moro on North Scott Street. Roasted marrow was the kind of thing that helped define Moro as innovative, but in a way that respected its roots. Back in the day, featuring such a classic was cutting edge, simply because no place else was doing it. That remains the case today; I haven’t seen roasted marrow on another local menu.
At Ciro, DiBianca—a past semifinalist for James Beard Foundation awards—maintains that respectful approach to food while throwing in an element of fun as he did at his Satsuma Asian Kitchen & Bar in Trolley Square. At that too-short-lived contemporary of Moro, the chef combined disparate Asian influences with other traditions to create a bold, different, totally fun menu of street food that, on its face, seemed a little nuts, but proved endlessly entertaining. Few play at both ends of the spectrum as cleverly as DiBianca.
And because Ciro is housed in the Veritas Wine & Craft Beer store, it also takes a seriously playful approach to wine. Everything on its list is available in the shop, just on the other side of a head-high partition, which makes it easy to stock up on a new discovery. Those new discoveries are made easy via food-wine pairings suggested on the menu.
Ciro is located inside Veritas Wine & Craft Beer.//photo by joe del tufo
I very deliberately took what I thought was one of the suggestions for the tuna tartare as a test, only to discover that, owing to faulty eyes and faultier spectacles, I ordered No. 12 (Schild GSM) instead of No. 17 (Saint Roche Rose). My partner judged that wine a fine match. The Schild was not the best choice for my meal (entirely my bad), but a delightful surprise on its own—a jammy blend of Rhone Valley grapes from Australia that opened up so beautifully, I mentally commended the maker of the list for including a top-notch wine at a reasonable price.
The wine was only the first of several surprises. Biggest of all: blue crab gnocchi. Ordering it was also a test. I find most gnocchi to be too doughy, I find heavy cream to be an insult to the delicate sweetness of crabmeat, and I find too often that the meat of blue crabs is often from an inferior import. I proudly own my snobbishness on these points, so my expectations were less than modest.
DiBianca, in a word, blew my doors off.
The gnocchi were pillowy light dumplings the size and shape of bay scallops. They held a Parmesan-rich cream that easily could have overwhelmed the crab, but those snow-white lumps were absolutely colossal, and there was no mistaking them as anything but domestic blue crab. Size alone made them stand up to the cream and the truffle in a topping of crispy bread crumbs. Bravo.
Tuna tartare.//photo by Joe del Tufo
As mentioned, Ciro serves small plates, but they are more filling than the label might imply. The menu offers a bit of land, sea, raw or chilled, and vegetable-based, which is where we found the crispy Brie. Baked in a light pastry, it was served with a purée of pear and topped with earthy arugula and Marcona almonds—a welcome alternative to the common berries, honey and toasted almond.
We sampled both the beef and the tuna tartares, and found they were not created equal. The beef was so thoroughly ground, it lost its texture, and the flavor was masked by mustard. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy it. The tuna suffered the same texture, but the wasabi aioli lent a pleasant tingle, the crunch of toasted sesame seeds lent a textural counterpoint, and the lemony, lightly dressed micro greens on top gave a touch of tart.
Another item you won’t often find on menus these days: pheasant. On the night of our visit, it was offered as a special. Pan-seared medium, the de-boned breast was sheathed in a crispy skin that proved the chef’s skill on the stove. Roasted potatoes and whole mushrooms were perfect accompaniments for the natural juices on the plate.
And finally there was God’s own butter—that marrow. Served as a split shank, it glistened on the bone. It easily could have stood alone on the perfect crusts it was served with, but DiBianca ramps it up with roasted whole cloves of garlic, a pile of various mushrooms and ribbons of basil that send the whole dish to lofty heights.
We visited Ciro during its fifth week in business, at a time when many new places would be stumbling through a de-bugging. Not long after its biggest Saturday night, Ciro hummed along perfectly. The intimate room seats about 35, and it was lively with diverse couples, girlfriends out for the night, after-workers and a family—the kind of mix the Riverfront always aimed to attract. But the coziness and novelty still made it feel like a secret spot. Don’t expect it to stay secret for long.
Ciro Food and Drink Inside Veritas Wine & Craft Beer
321A Justison St., Wilmington • 543-6071
Recommended: roasted bone marrow, blue crab gnocchi
Prices: small plates, $10-$20; chef’s tastings, $40-$60; wine pairings, $25-$35