Fast Food International: Piola
Country of Origin: Italy
Locations Worldwide: 29 in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Honduras, Italy, Mexico, Turkey, and the US
NYC Locations: One, near Union Square
Maybe because Piola has been covered in scaffolding for ages, but the Italian chain (which has been kitty-corner from The Strand since 2005) is the kind of restaurant you could walk by countless times without noticing it.
Inside, however, the cacophonous room is begging for attention. The walls are etched with quirky pictograms and covered with art for sale; dangling pendant lamps add even more color. The company produces their own quarterly magazine, available free from racks, and the front of the restaurant houses a wooden shelf filled with reading material including picture books on Brooklyn, the only indication of place. Minus that signifier, you could be in a '90s coffeehouse in any college town. Yet this look that originated in Treviso, Italy has been reproduced in countries as far flung as Turkey and Honduras.
Pizza is their calling card, and they sell over 50 styles that are eclectic to say the least. The global pies have names like The Beirut (zaatar, mozzarella, tomatoes and scallions), The Sarajevo (smoked mozzarella, ricotta and spinach) and yes, The Brooklyn (chicken, broccoli, gorgonzola and mozzarella). Slice was not impressed on a visit last year, and I can't blame them from their single-focused pizza standpoint.
That's why I restricted myself to only trying one pizza, one that seemed unusual and un-New York. Ham and pineapple, a not-so-guilty pleasure, wasn't going to cut it. South American flourishes are present in many of the pies, likely due the chain's substantial presence in São Paulo and Buenos Aires. I went that direction with the Curitiba ($14.50) employing hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, and catipury cheese, similar to cream cheese but tangier, to create a rich, vinegary combination. My mistake was ordering a white pizza. Not only is such a monochromatic pizza unphotogenic, it'll kill your appetite too. One slice and I was done for. A tomato sauce base definitely would've been more balanced with the already thick Brazilian cheese.
A pizza-free meal is also easily put together. There are countless and starters and hearty salads like the Rigoletto ($11), featuring thin slices of beef carpaccio, arugula, huge squares of shaved parmesan, and a little more of that Latin flair: avocado wedges. Diners are expected to use the olive oil, vinegar and salt on the table to make their own dressing like you might in Italy--or Argentina.
Penne Cividale ($14) mixed with fresh tomatoes, parma ham, parmesan and rosemary in a light cream sauce certainly trumps the Olive Garden, and the portion is a little more manageable, as well.
Diners are sent on their way with a shot of lemon sorbet spiked with Prosecco.
The obvious question presents itself: why someone would choose chain pizza in a city with so many options? Simply, Piola's audience isn't concerned with 00 flour, the pH of the water used to make the dough, or if the pizzas are cooked with gas or coal. The customers--who appear to be a mix of students and middle-aged couples--want variety, likely somewhere near Union Square and an easygoing experience. Piola also lures with numerous promotions like all-you-can-eat pizza and live music on Sundays, bottomless wine with entrees for the fairer sex on Wednesday nights and limitless gnocchi the 29th of every month. Value can certainly be a strong motivator.
About the author: Krista Garcia is a freelance writer and librarian (who does not work with books). Being obsessed with chain restaurants and Southeast Asian food, she would have no problem eating laska in Elmhurst and P.F. Chang's crab rangoon in New Jersey on the same day. She blogs at Goodies First.