As of a week ago, the new proprietors of the restaurant housed at New Paltz’s historic railroad depot didn’t even have their beer, wine and liquor license in hand yet. But already word is getting out on social media about the scrumptious northern Italian food on offer at Ciao Bella, which had its soft opening on May 20.
The building is still owned by Rocco Panetta, who bought and modernized it in 1999. The last former station of the Wallkill Valley Railroad remaining at its original location, first built in 1870 and rebuilt after a fire in 1907, the shingle-style structure had been through some tough times by that point. Although there are records of presidents Chester A. Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes being welcomed at the New Paltz station en route to Mohonk Mountain House, passenger service on the Wallkill Valley Railroad ended in 1937. By 1959 the station was closed; it subsequently spent some time as the meeting space of the local Knights of Columbus chapter.
Freight service on the line wasn’t discontinued until 1977, by which time the former railway station served as the headquarters for Channel 12, New Paltz’s public access TV station. SUNY New Paltz students came there to take hands-on classes in television production in the earliest days of portable video equipment. But the not-for-profit organization that ran the station, the Community Communications Project, didn’t have the funds to maintain the building, beyond obtaining a small grant to repair the leaky roof. At one point, bees even built a hive inside one of the exterior walls.
By the mid-1980s, the station was completely abandoned except by vagrants, and there was pressure from neighbors to tear it down as unsafe. But Robert Mark Realty purchased the building in 1986 and had it renovated for use as a real estate office – for a time. In partnership with Jeff DiMarco of the Gilded Otter, Panetta took over the building in 1999, did major renovations, renamed it La Stazione and began serving Italian food. Though DiMarco dropped out after the first year, Panetta sustained the business for 14 years, building an addition on the structure’s south side in 2003 before handing operation of the business over to Richard Ronkese in 2013. The latter ran the restaurant under the name The Station until 2021, when Panetta reopened La Stazione.
After some months of being closed for business, and then another renovation, the historic building with its rustic exterior is once again hosting diners in a sophisticated interior space, plus a spacious outdoor patio with a full outdoor bar, right next door to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. The dining room walls that Panetta had painted forest green are now a cheery pale peach; attractive modern swag lamps now hang from the high ceiling. Mounted on the walls are blown-up black-and-white photos taken in cities and villages in Italy in the postwar period, evoking scenes from classic Italian cinema.
“We painted, there’s new lighting, new canvases, new tables, new glassware and silver – everything has been updated,” says Roland Gashi, who’s managing the new business. He co-owns it with his uncle Vinny Gashi, a first-generation immigrant from Albania who also serves as head chef. The Gashi family, including Roland’s father, have run the original Ciao Bella in Monticello, near the racetrack, for about a quarter of a century now. The menu at the new operation is “almost the same” as its Sullivan County predecessor, says Roland.
Running the new business is a big break for the 27-year-old, who has been working in the family restaurant since he became a busboy at age 14. “My uncle has been doing it since the ‘90s. He trained with well-known chefs,” Roland says. “After he came here from Kosovo in the late ‘80s, he was working in an Italian restaurant, and he fell in love. He takes a lot of joy and pleasure in cooking.”
Chef Vinny’s specialties include fish and seafood, but you won’t see much detail about those dishes in the fish section of the menu – precisely because what’s on offer varies with what ingredients are available, Roland explains. “We get our fish fresh every day, so our specials will change every day.” On the day HV1 visited, the seafood choices included potato-crusted branzino with a Champagne/Dijon mustard sauce, pan-seared tuna steak on a bed of mango salad and housemade lobster ravioli. The latter were plump and creamy, served with a light tomato sauce.
For starters, there’s a generous selection of salads and appetizers. We loved the beet salad, in which paper-thin slices of golden beets were layered over a nest of arugula, Gorgonzola and walnuts and drizzled with a tangy balsamic reduction. We also tried the Vitello di Leandra: thin veal cutlets, pink and tender inside, served with artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes and almonds in a brandy sauce.
The chicken cutlets dubbed Pollo Martini are the chef’s most popular entrée, according to Roland, and for good reason: The Parmigiana/breadcrumb crust is thin and light, the lemon and white wine sauce exquisite. Sides with the non-pasta entrées were steamed broccoli and crispy roasted potatoes. We finished up with tiramisu – the best this reporter has had in years, light as a cloud.
Roland Gashi is quick to point out that vegans, anyone with a food allergy, sensitivity or even a strong dislike of a particular ingredient can be fully accommodated at Ciao Bella. “Everything is made to order. We can always adjust the recipe,” he says. Ingredients will be sourced locally to the greatest extent possible, with an emphasis on freshness.
By the time you read this, wine and spirits may be available with dinner at Ciao Bella – including the stock of wine that the Gashis acquired from Panetta when they bought out the business in March. The cozy wine cellar, which Roland notes contains “a lot of old vintages,” will soon be made available for private parties, with seating for up to 16 people.
Located at 5 Main Street (Route 299), behind Clemson Brothers Brewery, Ciao Bella New Paltz is closed on Tuesdays and open from 4 to 10 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, noon to 10 p.m. on Thursdays, noon to 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 9 p.m. on Sundays. It’ll be nice to have another place in town where you can get a nice dinner after a late movie, concert or theater performance on the weekend. For reservations, call (845) 256-9447. As of presstime there was not yet a website, but you can view the menus at www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100090829615419.