Editor's note: In "Fast Food International," Krista Garcia will take us around New York to the many international fast food chains that have landed in the five boroughs. She blogs at goodiesfirst.com.
Country of origin: Germany
Locations worldwide: More than 70 in countries including Mexico, Serbia, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates
NYC locations: One, near Union Square
While Hello Pasta and Nooï vie for the grab-and-go lunchtime crowds, Vapiano has set itself apart with a bar scene, theatrical open kitchens, and two soaring floors accented with a dramatic crimson chandelier.
Germany isn't the first country you'd think of to reproduce Italian food; nevertheless, this stylish Bonn-based chain makes our Sbarro look hopelessly fuddy-duddy. They've done away with table service while managing to make the concept feel modern rather than fast food-like.
Plastic swipe cards are issued to customers upon entering. You choose your own seat from the rustic wooden communal tables, order from the various stations along the back of the room, then wave your card in front of a metal reader and the price is added. You don't pay until you leave, which might be why the cards are limited to $50 apiece—a dine-and-dasher could only get away with so much. It also solves the separate check dilemma some have during group meals.
The menu is more basic than it initially appears; the two sides of the glossy rectangular card really only list pizza, pasta, and salads (and three panini) in various configurations. Both the pizza and pasta are priced in four tiers: traditional ($9.95), classic ($10.95), premium ($11.95) and signature ($12.95).
Everything is cooked to order and the pastas—ten varieties, including two whole wheat—are made fresh on site every day.
Linguini salsiccia con mirtillo rosso ($11.95) was spicy, oily, sweet and a little unusual. It never would've occurred to me to combine Sicilian pepperoni with edges sautéed to crispness, a big pinch of chile flakes, and Craisins (yes, dried cranberries). But if you're a sweet-savory lover like me (the only time I've balked is when a diner snuck raisin English muffins into my eggs Benedict) you'll appreciate the boldness. With the exception of a few peculiarities involving bok choy and crayfish in the signature section, the pastas are overwhelmingly marinara, cream sauce, and pesto standards.
The mixed antipasti ($8.95) is made up of roasted eggplant and peppers, mozzarella, olives, artichoke hearts, shaved parmesan and a hefty bruschetta for good measure. The portions tend to be generous. Unless you were sharing, it would be hard to finish a starter and a bowl of pasta.
Pizzas are a straightforward, thinnish crust affair, no bubbly char or blackened edges. The crudo ($11.95) was lightly sauced with melted mozzarella concentrated toward the center where it created sogginess. Parmesan curls, prosciutto and arugula (which wasn't listed on the men—perhaps they thought it needed a touch of green) were added after cooking.
Drinks, both alcoholic and caffeinated, as well as a few desserts like tiramisu and panna cotta, can be ordered at the bar. From 5pm-8pm, happy hour specials are available. On my visit, two inoffensive wines, a Pinot Grigio and a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, were being offered at $4.95 a glass. (I thought that was pretty cheap until I read that the four D.C. area locations had a $3.95 deal.) And sticking with wine or beer might be wise; the Vapiano martini contains raspberry vodka and schnapps, pineapple juice... and gummy bears. Strange, for sure, and possibly a sly nod to Germany. Gummy bears, too, originated in Bonn.