Cini Italian Chow
Ultra-fresh Italian fare and fast-casual service endear this cheerful eatery to the Grand Center crowd and beyond.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS…every step through Cini’s cafeteria-style line is punctuated with another question mark. At most fast-casual places, this is not such a conundrum because—let’s face it—you already know what you want on that burger. Cini’s ultra-fresh Italian fare leaps past pizza. Instead, meal deals revolve around pastas, salads, soups and wraps, all customizable with meats, cheeses, veggies and sauces. The cafeteria-style setup in the cheerful restaurant allows first-timers only a few moments to acclimate before they’re in the hot seat. The printed menus are fine as a cheat sheet, but will be forgotten after one glimpse through the glass displays, where ingredients are constantly being replenished—especially the fried spheres of rice the eatery is named for.
DECISION 1: CINI These little two-bite balls of tastiness (known as arancini in Italy) are traditionally made with arborio rice, veggies and sausage—packed together, breaded and deep-fried. Cini has two vegetarian options as well. The primavera’s wealth of veggies gives it the texture you would expect; the four-cheese is oozier. Mix and match your order of three to find a favorite, then try to decide on a dipping sauce. And don’t forget the two kinds of dessert cini: sweet rice and hazelnut chocolate rolled in either crushed vanilla wafers or Oreos.
DECISION 2: THE PLATE This is where the serving line tends to slow, as customers who think they’ve decided on pasta get a look at the incomparably fresh salad bar, or those who are hankering for wraps see the thin-crust piadinas, perfect for eating on the go. Cleverly anticipating the dilemma, Cini will put pasta into the piadina or let you pick two of the three plates: pasta, salad or piadina.
DECISION 3: GRILL ITEMS, SAUCES, TOPPINGS AND SIDES Okay, yes, this is more than one decision. But by this point, you will probably have a general idea of the direction your meal is headed. Go with your instincts. The potential combinations made possible by the eight grill items (ranging from calamari to Italian sausage to crispy fried chicken) and six sauces (three each of hot and cold)—not to mention at least a dozen toppings (arugula to pancetta to white beans)—are too many to be fully absorbed during one visit. Besides, you can’t really make a wrong call. Pastas are prepared in small-ish batches, so none sit around cooling off and getting lumpy. Piadinas are flavorful and sturdy. Salads are higher quality than at some sit-down Italian restaurants.
DECISION 4: BEVERAGES You have the usual fountain soda selection, plus coffee, San Pellegrino and a handful of beers and wines on tap. The wines are labeled by varietal rather than producer and vintage (pinot noir, pinot grigio, merlot and chardonnay were available on our visit) and priced at only $5.75 a glass—but don’t let that deter you. They turned out to be good accompaniments to the dishes. At $2.75 to $4.75 a glass, beer was an even better deal. Still, judging by our Saturday night observation, arts patrons headed to Grand Center are more likely to be imbibing than students are.
With its clean, modern decor and sincere attention to quality, Cini is already making inroads locally. And if you exclude pizza, almost none of the top national fast-casual chains offer Italian, so Cini’s owners—who have 17 Buffalo Wild Wings franchises locally as well as Il Bel Lago—are clearly onto something with massive growth potential. And they’re not giving the competition time to imitate. The second location opens soon on Ladue Road.
Cini Italian Chow
Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg