Whidbey Island’s Ciao a Neapolitan Delight
By Brian E. Clark
I was planning on a trip to Naples, Italy this fall. But I’m afraid it will have to wait until the pandemic cools further and I feel safer about traveling to Europe.
So instead, I’ll head to the northwest corner of the continental United States and the little burg of Coupeville on Whidbey Island, Washington for some authentic Neopolitan pizza at Mark Laska’s aptly named Ciao restaurant.
Founded 11 years ago after Laska interned with internationally famous pizzaiolo (pizza chef) Enzo Coccia in Naples, Laska added a shop with artisan Italian cheeses, pastas, olive oils, tomato sauces, meats, wines and other groceries during the pandemic.
When I fly into the Evergreen State – before heading north to Whidbey Island in Washington’s Puget Sound – I’ll take the light rail from the airport to Seattle’s Peace Vans (peacevans.com) to rent a Mercedes Metris camper for my trip.
Then I’ll point the van north to visit Ciao, which Laska says he created to provide a “personable, memorable experience that feeds the soul and nourishes the body with fresh and beautiful food. I convey my love for people by cooking for them and every dish is prepared with traditional Italian techniques, authentic ingredients and locally sourced produce.”
If Canada will let me in, I’ll continue north to British Columbia’s Vancover Island. If not, I’ll circumnavigate the Olympic Peninsula, my old stomping grounds from when I was a reporter at the Olympian newspaper in Olympia, Washington.
First, though, I’ll stop in for pizza at Ciao in Coupeville and get some ideas for visiting Naples, when that eventually can take place.
Laska, who grew up outside Minnesota’s Twin Cities and worked as a teen in a Jewish deli – which he called the center of his neighborhood – got his love for cooking even earlier in his grandmother’s kitchens.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up,” he said.
When his grandmother – a refugee from eastern Europe who had lived in Italy as a child – would cook with her friends, he was invited to participate.
“So kitchens have always been a place of comfort for me,” he said. “It was there that I learned all my grandmother’s cooking secrets.”
He continued working in kitchens when he went to college in Los Angeles at the California Institute for the Arts. The Biltmore Hotel was just down the street and he landed a job in its restaurant.
“It was a moment in time when the LA food scene was being created by chefs in that hotel, all of whom went on to do really exciting things,” he explained.
At the time, he said, the Biltmore had the only four-star restaurant in LA.
“I was fortunate to be there and I worked all kinds of jobs, from the line to the broiler to the sauté station to the prep station,” added Laska, who also cooked at restaurants in the Bel Air Hotel in LA and Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego.
“That led to a career in Los Angeles that lasted 20 years,” he said. “But then I had kids, began plotting to get out of LA and start my own restaurant.”
Laska said he fell in love with northern Puget Sound’s San Juan Islands, specifically the horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island. He was enamored with the view of Mount Baker to the east on Washington’s mainland and began developing plans to open what he thought would be a “barbecue joint”on the island.
He made numerous additional trips to Orcas, but couldn’t find the right property.
“Each time I returned to LA, it was like landing in an ashtray by comparison,” he said glumly.
He eventually found a home on Whidbey Island, which is about 30 miles southeast of Orcas and also has great views of of Mount Baker. He chose the small town Coupeville, which has a population of 1,850 and is the largest community on the island. He then opened the BBQ joint with a partner until his partner eventually bought him out.
Next up, Italy and his apprenticeship with Enzo Coccia. On his return to Whidbey Island, he opened his own restaurant four blocks from his house.
“I get to serve my neighbors and visitors every day,” he said. “It’s flippin’ awesome.”
Laska said he wasn’t certain people would like thin-crusted Neopolitan pizza because many were unfamiliar it.
“I thought they might just want Chicago-style pizza,” he said. “But to my amazement, the reaction was great and I learned that people like a finer cut of prosciutto and other nicer ingredients. The restaurant took off from the first day.”
When the pandemic struck, he pivoted to making carry out and selling Italian foods in a store he created in the restaurant and online, working with artisan growers he’d met during his time in Campania, which is the region surrounding Naples.
“Enzo would send me hither and yon to work with artisanal food producers, so I got to mill flower, make mozzarella cheese at a water buffalo dairy, pick olives, make salami and do other things,” he said.
“It was a wonderful apprenticeship and Naples, as crazy as it is, was a great place to be. I could see and experience how much fusion and cross-cultural fertilization happened there between all of the foods of the Mediterranean during millennia past.
“Then there was Enzo, who is probably the greatest living practitioner of pizza in Italy. I believe he has the only Michelin-rated pizzeria in the world. He’s one of the primary movers and shakers who got Neopolitan pizza listed as a designated food by the European Union.”
Over the years, Laska met and developed relationships with other Italian vendors and stocked their goods in his restaurant, which is now adding tables again as the pandemic continues to lesson. There is also seating on the front patio for outdoor dining.
“I know the hands that touched the foods that we sell in my store,” he said. “The wines are all super small production, family owned and organically grown 98 percent of the time.
“I chose the food that way, too. Anything with a vegetable in it has been grown within a kilometer of where it was processed and packed that same day. If is a pesto, for example, they’ll pick the basil and it’ll be made into a pesto and jarred within a few hours.”
Lasko said many people who had dined at his restaurant – which serves more than pizza – and then returned home often couldn’t find the foods or Italian ingredients they wanted.
“So we’d ship them,” he said. “It just took off during the pandemic, which turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise for us.”
Laska said the store has a “beautiful assortment of food and wine packages that you could share at a picnic or some other gathering or a date night night, which is the most popular.”
Date Night contains a buyer’s choice of 1 red, white, or sparkling wine; Muccheroni Pugliesi pasta, breadsticks, tomato filet, bruschetta spread, Pizzuta almonds; a “secret” spice blend and chocolates.
I may just have to order one. It costs $65.99.
Or I could go big and get the Porch Party, which includes three kinds of meats and three cheeses, two kinds of wine, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, green olives, bruschetta spread, breadsticks and a fig demi bar for $149.99.
For more information, see ciao.store or call (360) 678-0800. Here’s a link to Ciao’s restaurant menu: https://ciao.store/wp-content/
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.