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Review: Bella Ciao and Nacho Problems

Two restaurants from the folks at Admiralty Lounge bring new flavors, concepts to Railroad Avenue

The veggie nachos feature mozzarella, cheddar, black beans, avocado, bell peppers, green onion and tomatoes on Wednesday, March 20 at Nacho Problems. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Mark Saleeb CDN Contributor

Ah, Chicago. Known for its unique culinary takes on American classics, few are less iconic than the Chicago-style deep dish. But in the shadow of that titan stands a lesser-known, but no-less-important, part of the culinary fabric of Chicago: tavern pizza. Where deep dish is, well, deep, tavern pie is prepared on a cracker-thin crust with an unusual square cut.

To this point, the management of Admiralty Lounge have made an attempt at the Chicago-style tavern concept with Bella Ciao, located at 1427 Railroad Ave. Next door at 1425 Railroad Ave., they also opened a nacho bar called Nacho Problems — making ther restaurant group one of the most diverse I’ve seen locally outside of Yum! Brands. The Admiralty Lounge provided an excellent experience, but a more upscale one. Can they translate that excellence to the low-brow?

A half cheese, half sausage pizza from Bella Ciao on Tuesday, March 12. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Bella Ciao

Upon arriving at Bella Ciao’s soft open, we were greeted by a Spartan space positively abuzz with movement. People were seated individually and in pairs at the bar. Most tables were occupied by groups, and a steady stream of pizzas was coming out of the relatively open-air kitchen. With no hard copies of the menu available (yet), we ordered from the website.

Drake Marshall slices a pepperoni pizza into squares — the Chicago-style way — at Bella Ciao. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Alongside classics like cheese ($18) and pepperoni ($20) are some slightly more unusual topping combinations — like The Tavern Pie ($21), which includes lamb — and a few classic pizzeria sides, like mozzarella “logs” ($8), cheese bread ($9) and a couple of salads.

We put in our orders and sat back, quaffing beers. Ten minutes later, the entire order was sitting in front of us, piping hot. I was relatively impressed, but one of my dining partners, a child of Chicago himself, told me that typically you only need six to eight minutes to cook one of these pizzas. The speed is definitely attractive, with rapid turnaround making this a good option for nightlife-minded folks to get a bite before hitting the bars, or potentially, for somebody returning from them and in need of a pick-me-up.

Mozzarella logs are served with red sauce at Bella Ciao. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

My first attempt at picking up a piece from the edge of the cheese pizza was immediately complicated by the relative lack of crust and profusion of cheese — another hallmark of Chicago-style tavern pizza. First bites were very pleasant. The sauce is fantastically tangy with the fatty cheese countering the zest. The sausage pizza was similar, with the addition of savory browned sausage providing a little bit of salt to the flavor profile (and pairing nicely with a lager). The Hawaiian ($23) was my personal standout, with spam in the place of Canadian bacon.

A half pepperoni, half veggie pizza at Bella Ciao on Tuesday, March 12. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

A second round of food — pepperoni pizza, a veggie pizza ($21), the pepperoni rolls ($12), a Bella salad ($7) and an order of truly gargantuan mozzarella sticks — all came out to consistently excellent reviews from the table. While I cannot speak to the authenticity of their pizza, I can say I was happy with the experience, and foresee this new addition to downtown doing brisk business. Did I mention it’s all ages?

Nacho Problems

Eight days after the opening of Bella Ciao, we returned to the same block of Railroad to try out Nacho Problems. “All nachos all the time” is a fascinating (albeit insane) niche. I initially believed it would be insufficient to draw people back — how do you stretch out nachos to make up a full menu?

The BBQ pork nachos feature pork, red onion, cilantro, black olives and BBQ sauce. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Apparently, quite easily. Running the gamut from a four-cheese dairy industry darling of a nacho, all the way to a plate piled with pulled pork and barbecue sauce, the menu is narrow yet ensures everyone gets what they want — as long as what they want is nachos. It fits in well with the trippy decor: sparkly, loud, and filled with funky art.


We tried most of the menu: classic cheese ($12), the BBQ pork ($16), the veggie ($14), the “gas station” ($13) and street corn nachos ($13). Standouts included the gas station nacho, featuring a fantastic house queso, ground beef, black olives, pickled jalapenos and a deep sense of road trip nostalgia.

Topped with esquite-style corn, the street corn nachos were vinegary, creamy, crunchy and just all-around incredible. One complaint regarding pricing: The cheese nacho feels like an incredibly bad value proposition at one dollar less than the two standouts we had today. Despite that quibble, the food was delicious, and the drinks strong and affordable.

The street corn nachos features mozzarella, cheddar, cotija, garlic, cilantro, corn and tajin at Nacho Problems. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

The owners divulged that a variety of video and table games, as well as community events will be hosted in this space, described as “Trapper Keeper Psychedelia.” It’s clear to me that the goal is to make this a community space — one free of the children commonly seen running into stranger’s knees at breweries.

The transition from The Admiralty and its fine-adjacent dining to pizza tavern and nacho bar was, overall, a success. Adding these restaurants to the family may provide a good opportunity to exercise some more creativity in the kitchen — not that they’ve ever lacked that — and provides an excellent couple of additions to the downtown scene. In the days and weeks to come, I expect the menu to tighten up, but as long as the basics remain, I think they’ll be a longtime part of downtown Bellingham.

Bella Ciao is open 3 p.m. to midnight daily at 1427 Railroad Ave. Nacho Problems is open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily at 1425 Railroad Ave. Info: bellaciao.bar, nachoproblematic.com.

Mark Saleeb is a frequent enjoyer of food. Find him at instagram.com/eats.often.

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