“When it was first born, twenty years ago, Piola was received with perplexity and indifference mainly due to its appearance, to some too modern, bold and inconceivable.”
– Piola pizzeria chain website
Buenos Aires – As most of you know, I’ll go pretty much anywhere to check out pizza. Alan, over at Buenos Aires Argentina Guide wrote up his recent experience at Piola, Libertad 1078, Centro, a chain of a dozen and a half pizzerias in six countries, that, other than slow service and being a bit pricey, he liked quite a bit. Still, that left the pizza itself as worth checking out. He starts off with a quote from their website (which is, perhaps slightly different from exactly what they said on their website, no Alan?). Piola is about twenty years old worldwide, I’m not sure when their branch here opened. The name is street slang for “chill”, or “chill out”… and the quote above sort of fits my thoughts on entering the place. They’re definitely into promotion(s) – both self and other – and they get involved in local community activities wherever they are, at least based on their website, and also offer various types of promotions (they did not, however, invent the idea of giving movie discount tickets in New York… really).
Immediately to the right as you enter the local branch is a display of Mistral shoes. They’re not, as far as I can tell, for sale, they’re just on display – a little advertising for a domestic brand. The center of the room has a large, meter long model of a TAM airliner with the name prominently displayed on both sides (it’s also the lead advertiser on their website). There’s a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, blessedly not lit up by spotlights, nor spinning. Two large televisions were showing ESPN, without sound. Music, mixed format, was playing at a fairly loud volume. The walls are sort of mud brown-grey, with scattered fake chalk drawings of things like, well, teapots with faces, on them. The tables are covered in black cloths with orange, blue, and green stripes, and then those are topped (and the chairs too) with clothes in the same orange, blue, and green, plus a few in red and yellow. I don’t think the original Piola, assuming it looks much the same, was received with indifference due to its appearance, though I’ll buy perplexity… as in, who would design a place to look like this???
There’s a long bar on the left, with a few small tables on the right, and then the main dining room behind. I seated myself at one of the small bar tables (there were a couple of other folk in the bar as well) and proceeded to wait – but I was prepared for that – Alan had warned that the service was interminably slow. A couple of waiters looked my direction but no one approached. I realized after a few minutes that, at least at lunchtime, the bar is merely a waiting area. I moved myself to a regular table in the dining room and was immediately greeted by a waitress. From that point on, I had delightful, friendly, and attentive service, as did everyone else around me. I did note that not once did anyone from the restaurant ever go into the front section where the bar is and speak with customers, despite people waiting, sometimes clearly for tables – they simply ignored them until they entered the dining room. Very odd.
As a side note… I was sitting next to a group of Japanese businessmen and women. The “boss” was clearly the last to arrive, and they’d all dutifully waited for him. Now, this is just an observation – I don’t know much about Japanese business culture, and I don’t know that this was typical or an aberration. The boss ordered a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Now, the rest of them had all spent 10-15 minutes perusing the menus while waiting for him. Immediately when he ordered, the other five all piped up with “yes, I’ll have that too, spaghetti and meatballs” – and they all did. The same happened after their lunch with coffee. They waited for him to order, a café cortado, and then immediately all announced that they’d have the same as well… except one guy who said “no thank you”. They all turned and glared at him, and he turned red and immediately ordered a cortado – he didn’t drink it mind you, but he ordered it. They even followed suit with putting in exactly half a sugar pack, just as the boss did. Either this guy runs an anally tight ship, or there’s a promotion looming for someone, or maybe it’s just a cultural thing that I don’t get. I leave it at that.
But, I was there for the pizza. The menu is four pages long of plastic coated bright green paper. The first page lists three columns of different types of pizzas, the rest of the pages list pastas, antipasti, cocktails, and a decent wine list – including, and I give them major points, a selection of both half bottles and quarter bottles (you know, those airline sized ones), a nice plus when you just want a glass of wine, because you know the bottle hasn’t been sitting around open for the last three weeks. I ordered a quarter bottle of Doña Paola Sauvignon Blanc, a favorite, and a Napoli pizza – sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies, fresh basil, and buffalo mozzarella. One thing I’ll definitely give Piola is a good selection of combinations on their pizzas. Do they have the most combinations? No. And they charge extra (4 pesos) if you want to make a substitution of any ingredient, which is just silly, it’s not like the pizzas are pre-made. Their prices are a little high, as Alan mentioned, ranging from a plain tomato sauce and mozzarella at 11 pesos (for the small size), on up to a 26 peso combination that I don’t recall. The large size pies are more, by about a third.
The pizza… nice thin crust, well browned and just slightly crispy on the edges. At first I thought that the pizza was sort of swimming in grease, as their was a puddle forming around it quickly – then I realized that it was the buffalo mozzarella, which has a high water content, and was not grease, but simply the whey from the cheese. It does, however, make the pizza a bit soggy in the center – however, that’s specific to this particular cheese, and most of the pizzas use a “regular” cow’s milk firm mozzarella or other cheeses. The basil was nice and fresh, the sun-dried tomatoes nicely softened (oil packed and seasoned too), the olives black rather than the more common green here – and four of the six were pitted, two weren’t… that’s actually, a negative, much as I’d rather have them all pitted, having a mix is just plain dangerous for the teeth… Flavorwise – the crust, while cooked right, is simply flavorless and disappointing – use some salt in the dough, please, that’s all it would have taken. The tomato sauce, well, it was so lightly painted onto the dough that it may as well have been a touch of blush. It’s a good thing that the toppings were tasty, or this would have simply been a non-entity in the pizza world. For the price, a big disappointment. One interesting feature on their website – you can vote on how much you like the pizza. While 78% have voted “very good”, 17% have voted “bad”, and another 5% are split between “okay” and “good”… I’d be worried about my product if one out of six people who responded to that question rated it “bad”.
When it came time for dessert, Alan and one of his commenters had both recommended the tiramisu highly. I started to order it and my waitress stopped me. She said, “look, alot of people order it, but it’s really not very good – very alcoholic and just not made right.” I don’t know if she was referring to that day’s batch in specific, or a general commentary, but she steered me to the profiteroles (maybe they had extras they needed to sell) – not very Italian, but turned out to be interesting – first off, the largest profiteroles I think I’ve ever seen – one would have been plenty for one person – so a shareable plate (a good thing too, since it runs 16 pesos – in fact, the desserts seemed to be particularly pricey, even in comparison to the rest of the somewhat pricey menu). The pastry, once again, lacking in salt – you don’t need a lot, especially in a dessert dough, but you need some to give it flavor. The ice cream and the chocolate sauce were good. It wasn’t a wow, by any stretch. I’m now wondering about the tiramisu.
A nice touch at the end, after your meal and/or coffee, they bring a shotglass of sgropino (not limoncello as a couple of folks stated) – which is traditionally a blend of grappa and lemon sorbet, in this case a variation – vodka and lemon gelato. I’m not so sure I like the creaminess that the gelato brings to the drink, it’s better when it’s sort of sharp and tangy.
All in all, just an okay experience. There’s far better pizza in Buenos Aires, at a lower price, and often in settings that are easier on the eye…
I leave you with some architectural shots along Marcelo T. Alvear that caught my eye as I wandered…