A Crowded Piazza
La Piazza Pasta Cafe doesn't need this review. On a recent Saturday evening, there was a 30-minute wait to get into the Hollywood newcomer, followed by a harrowing, hostess-led trek through narrow aisles chaotically gridlocked with diners and waiters squeezing -- and I mean squeezing -- by. Our crowded push forward conjured newsreel memories of desperate Vietnamese rushing the U.S. Embassy gates during the fall of Saigon. Once seated, we were quickly brought a basket of soft, fresh breads endowed with dark, crunchy artesian crusts -- the first hint as to why this two-and-a-half-month-old café is already besieged by eager patrons.
It doesn't take long to understand the rest of Piazza's appeal. For one thing, its menu of pizzas, pastas, risottos, and scallopinis is inherently popular; as Neil Simon once quipped, the only three certainties in life are "death, taxes, and everyone loves Italian food." More important, though, its recipe for success is based on a tried-and-true formula long used by upscale national restaurant chains: aesthetic setting plus buoyant bar scene plus accommodating service plus fresh, accessible cuisine at affordable prices yields satisfied diners, lively word of mouth, return customers, and a lengthy wait. In other words, if Houston's ever opens a branch in Rome, it will likely resemble La Piazza Pasta Cafe.
The 186-seat space is a pleasing mix of wood, stone, brick walls, and graceful architectural curves. When filled with diners, it is a loud room, but the reverberating buzz only heightens the perception of a bouncy, boisterous atmosphere. The wait staff is cordial, well-informed, and, on weekends, numerous. Even during the most hectic moments of a Saturday night, the crew was adept at attending to such details as promptly removing plates, replacing silverware, refilling bread, water, and wine, and bringing the check. Staff members exude confidence in the cuisine they're serving too: After we confirmed that, yes, this was our first time here, our waiter enthusiastically responded, "Believe me, you'll be back!"
We did come back, on a slower weeknight, and as is often the case, the service slowed at a compensatory rate. You could chalk this up partially to the smaller staff on hand, but overall the B-team waiters, while still amiably competent, are not nearly as sharp as the A-team. The kitchen seems well-staffed at all times. Our food was consistently delivered in rapid-fire fashion -- too rapid on one occasion, when main courses arrived while we were still working on appetizers.
At first glance, the large menu appears extensive, but closer scrutiny reveals many of the same ingredients and cooking styles maneuvered into multiple combinations. For instance, more than half of the 15 pastas come with some sort of tomato sauce, including gnocchi "Sorrentina," which I suggest avoiding because the potato dumplings are too heavy (and bland by nature), the tomato sauce too stingily applied (thus bland), the melted mozzarella not adding much (read bland), and the menu's promised "fresh basil" omitted altogether.
Even those who might disagree with my gnocchi assessment should order a different pasta, as anyone who eats even half of this hefty portion will rise from the table feeling like Cool Hand Luke after his 20th hard-boiled egg. Porcini-filled tortellini alfredo was a slightly lighter but still stick-to-the-ribs repast; the white cream sauce was mildly garlicky, the pasta cooked al softe.
Mozzarella makes multiple menu appearances partnered not just with pastas but in numerous appetizers. Thick, milky, white wedges of fresh bufala are served several ways including (1) layered with ripe tomatoes, basil, and balsamic dressing in salad Caprese and (2) piled along with salami, prosciutto, olives, and marinated vegetables on an appealing antipasto platter. The cheese is also melted atop both eggplant parmigiana and grilled eggplant with sun-dried tomato and basil -- and it stars in a Milanese-style, thick, breaded square that is sliced diagonally into two triangular wedges and fried until soft inside. Although executed a bit greasily, the last dish was still superior to the pre-made frozen sticks one usually encounters, especially when paired with a gooseneck pour of porcini mushrooms in thin white wine sauce.
Lactose intolerants might want to begin with fried calamari and zucchini, steamed mussels or baby clams, or salmon carpaccio drizzled with olive oil and citrus and dressed with capers, arugula leaves, diced tomato, and squares of parmigiano Reggiano cheese. The thinly sliced salmon was lean and clean but too chilled -- bringing the plate to room temperature would have allowed the fish to thaw to full flavor.
Soups provide a heartier start, especially pasta e fagioli, a tasty tomato base well-stocked with petite ditalini tubes of al dente pasta, meaty white beans, and a full boost of fresh basil leaves. It was perfect for dunking that delicious bread.
More mozzarella gets heaped upon thin, crisp pizza crusts blistered in a wood-burning oven visible to the dining room. Nine types of toppings range from prosciutto, fontina cheese, and arugula to balsamic roasted portobellos with sun-dried tomatoes and truffle oil to simpler additions like sausage or eggplant. We chose the margherita, not as good as the best pies around but competitive with the rest.
Main courses too are more solid than spectacular. Thin slices of chicken or veal scaloppine are offered up half a dozen ways each, including breaded Milanese or parmigiana style, sautéed with mushrooms in creamy champagne sauce, and veal al limone, three tender cutlets covered in sprightly lemon butter sauce. The menu description had also promised "fresh herbs" with the limone, but instead, the scaloppine was capped with a captivating concoction of capers, green olive bits, and strips of marinated pepper. Accompanying the veal, and most entrées, are broccoli, a smattering of garlic-sautéed spinach, and a refreshing rendition of potato gratin cooked in broth rather than cream.
Red snapper "Livornesa," one of a trio of fish specialties, featured a fleshy filet sautéed in pleasantly neutral tomato sauce and sprinkled with calamata olives and capers -- Piazza's cooks apply the latter to food with the same sort of gusto Pavarotti exhibits when applying his makeup.
For those who want a less-fussed-with piece of fish, salmon and swordfish come straightforwardly grilled, as does New York steak, which is served with a creamy, cognac-fueled peppercorn sauce. In a curious crossover move, New York strip also comes with chimichurri sauce, while the Argentine entraña (chitterlings) are accompanied by sautéed portobello mushrooms and a balsamic infusion. That's it for grilled meats, but a gorgeously gargantuan veal chop is a recurring nightly special.
A brightly colored, mass-produced, laminated dessert menu, with pictures of each offering, resembles the list of banana splits and chocolate fudge sundaes handed out at Denny's. The menus include a complete line of frozen pastries -- tiramisu, ricotta cheesecake, amaretto cake, and so on. The wait staff's highly recommended baked Alaska, with tableside rum-dousing and subsequent crowd-pleasing flambé, admittedly offers some mild entertainment value, but when the flames die down, so does the confection's appeal: Stratas of vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate ice creams were so hard, they should have come with a minichainsaw, and a gooey meringue topped all the evidence one needs to conclude that whipped egg whites don't freeze well.
La Piazza Pasta Cafe may not need this review, but it sure could use better desserts.
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