Series of happy and not-so-happy accidents led Ciao Wagon to Pasco

Susanne and Jessie Ayala had a plan.

It just didn’t include opening Ciao Trattoria in downtown Pasco, which they did in October.

The Ayalas intended to leverage their restaurant experience and the success of their Ciao Wagon food truck into a sit-down restaurant in east Pasco, at the Osprey Pointe Marketplace, which hasn’t been built.

Even with the opening date uncertain, they weren’t interested when a downtown Pasco property owner approached them on the street and asked them to consider a storefront he owns.

“Nope, we’re doing Osprey Pointe,” the Ayalas told him.

They looked anyway and the “no” became a “yes.” The space, 112 N. Fourth Ave., near Lewis Street, was transformed from a messy, box-filled former shipping office into a café with tables and a long bar for take-out customers.

It was the latest in a long line of happy and not-so-happy accidents that prompted the couple to alter their plans.

As they recall, they changed their minds after eyeing the fishbowl-style display windows on either side of the door and its pleasant atmosphere.

Susanne saw an opportunity: Ciao Wagon was busy with special events and bookings. Regular customers were frustrated that it wasn’t more readily available to the public.

A brick-and-mortar restaurant in downtown could be a great way to cater to fans by offering walk-up service.

Jessie agreed.

“So we did it,” she said.

A comfortable change

Ciao Trattoria is a small sit-down restaurant with a limited kitchen and a smattering of tables for eat-in customers. Those fishbowl windows have parlor-style seating overlooking the sidewalk.

In a neighborhood awash in Mexican food, Ciao Trattoria offers a different palate – charcuterie, gyros, Ciao Wagon’s celebrated smashed pastrami melt, shawarma sandwich, lemon pasta and maple bacon jalapeño mac.

Jessie does most of the cooking a block away at the Pasco Specialty Kitchen, a commercial kitchen that provides food preparation space to tenants. The trattoria’s kitchen is set up to handle quick cook items and staging. There is no vent hood, a necessity for heavy duty food prep.

It has a license to sell beer, wine and cider. The Ayalas hope to add cocktails to the menu, in addition to a beverage lineup that includes espresso drinks.

They still intend to open a version of Ciao Trattoria when the Osprey Pointe Marketplace building is constructed near the Columbia River in east Pasco. JMS Development will build it and other structures on the Port of Pasco-owned site beginning in 2022.

Ciao Trattoria will be among the first businesses to open there, but there is no guarantee it will open to long lines. The Ayalas say they’re prepared for a slow start but are confident their menu and execution will carry them.

“What gives us the confidence is the concept,” Jessie said.

The Ayalas are just as thrilled to be part of downtown, even if it wasn’t planned.

“I don’t think people see the untapped potential of downtown Pasco,” Jessie said.

The city of Pasco is building the Lewis Street overpass, which will improve connections between downtown and the east side. It is updating Peanuts Park, the Pasco Farmers Market and sidewalks with benches and other pedestrian-friendly touches.

The city council recently agreed to remove some rules than prohibited sandwich boards, second-hand stores, membership businesses and other activities in its commercial business district after businesses said the rules were barriers to a thriving downtown.

The couple were surprised by some of the rules, but said they’ve been able to adapt.

“The city of Pasco has been very accommodating,” Jessie said.

Passion for cooking

Jessie is the chef of the family. Susanne works in human resources.

His career trajectory began in Prosser, where he grew up. He calls himself an undistinguished student who was a credit shy during his high school career. His home economics teacher counseled him to plan and prepare a meal, down to the recipes.

The experience stuck and led him to the culinary program at South Seattle Community College. He settled in Seattle for several years, working in high-end establishments, including the Columbia Tower Club atop the city’s – and Northwest’s – tallest office building.

He returned to Prosser to work for his aunt and uncle, who owned Wine Country Inn. He met and married Jessie and the couple began a family. They opened Tuscany restaurant in Prosser in 2010 and ran it for three years until a dream job for Susanne took the family back to Seattle.

Jessie held a series of jobs, including sous chef for Ivar’s, the seafood chain, and working for a vendor that provided meal service to the Boeing Co.

Intrigued by food trucks, they bought a new model in Portland, a cedar-sided vehicle they dubbed Ciao Wagon. They did little with the vehicle at first.

Susanne was visiting the Tri-Cities when a chance visit with friends showed her the need for food trucks catering to wine industry events.

The Ayalas fired up the Ciao Wagon, with Jessie commuting across the mountains from Seattle for two years to work special events in private businesses. By 2017, they were back in the Tri-Cities and Ciao Wagon was a full-time job for Jessie while Susanne settled in as human resources manager for Americold.

Covid-19 battle

Disaster struck in mid-2020 when the Ayalas came down with Covid-19, exposed through a family member, they believe.

Susanne and their younger children got better, but Jessie did not. He recalls a coughing fit like no other while showering.

“It was the worst thing I ever heard,” Susanne said.

He would end up being hospitalized in Portland and placed on an ECMO, or Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine, to rest his heart and lungs. It’s a last-ditch treatment for the very ill, but it worked. He was off in 12 days. Doctors had braced Susanne to prepare for two months.

When he was conscious, the couple would discuss the future, or rather, she talked and he answered in his head – a breathing tube kept him from speaking.

Their children advised her to shut down Ciao Wagon, but she had other ideas.

So did he.

He woke up, he said, with a head full of food, particularly pasta.

He faced an arduous recovery, but regained his strength slowly through physical therapy and a determination to get back to work. The first job was preparing 130 boxed dinners for a catering job.

They were on time, but Jessie said he was so exhausted he couldn’t move his feet.

He contemplated retiring, fearing he had long Covid and would never recover enough to move as freely and quickly as he needs in a kitchen.

“Time is the enemy in food and I have to keep moving,” he said.

His recovery progressed, but with setbacks, including a gallbladder attack that required surgery.

For Susanne, his determination drove the couple to plan not one but two restaurants.

“That mentality is why we’ve been able to open this business,” she said.

He agreed.

“We don’t want to fail because we didn’t try.”

Ciao Trattoria: 112 N. Fourth Ave., Pasco, eatciao.com, 509-380-5466. Facebook: @eatciao.

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