A Hamburger Today
NYC: Piola, Union Square
"Haven't been yet. Need to go. Don't like the name, but hey, The Flaming Lips and the Butthole Surfers have dumbass names and they're good, right?" —Adam Kuban, 2005
48 East 12th Street, New York NY 10003; map); 212-777-7781; piola.it
Pizza Style: Thin-crust upscale chain pizza
Oven Type: Wood-fired
The Skinny: Skinny is the right word; the pies here are LP-size and about as thin
Price: $9.50 to $17 a pie
We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to pizza here in New York City, with almost all styles represented (although I can't think of any Chicago-style deep dish spots). Not forgetting, of course, the New York–Neapolitan form that was the first pizza in America. We are in the midst of what might best be described as a Neapolitan pizza revival—I am looking forward to trying out Paulie Gee's—which has in turn fostered new hybrids—I am also looking forward to sampling Nate Appleman's "Bowery style" pizza at Pulino's. But both places need some time to mature, so in the meantime I busied myself with covering Piola, which opened way back in in 2005. Piola is an Italian chain that got its start in Treviso in 1986, but curiously it has more branches in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and the U.S. than it does in Italy. Does New York really need any—let alone another—chain pizzeria?
Piola bills itself as more than just a pizzeria, the company produces a quarterly magazine, and the restaurants host live musical performances, film openings, and book readings. In short it seeks to define itself as a cultural center that happens to serve pizza. It reminds me of what Two Boots in the East Village aspired to when they first opened. The decor might be considered eclectic if one didn't suspect that it is probably pretty similar from restaurant to restaurant. The multitude of garish colors and the generally busy decor seems more contrived than organic.
The menu is lengthy, to put it mildly.
The Reggio Emilia is remarkable for being the first pizza in my experience that was actually lessened by the addition of sausage. It wasn't that sausage was spoiled, at least then it would have tasted of something, but it was that it was so bland and mealy that it detracted from the pie as a whole. It was also about three times as thick as the crust which was paper thin but also on the soft and chewy side with little in the way of char. It did not have much rigidity. The sweet sauce and a mild mozzarella, while lacking salt, otherwise worked quite well together. I am not a fan of crust that is cracker crisp throughout but the pizza at Piola needed more oven time. Perhaps then it would achieve a more pleasing level of synergy.
That's one way to package left over pizza, I can think of better ways.
I sampled, more out of morbid curiosity than with much expectation of finding something worth recommending, the Regina Margherita from the a'pizza Napoletana section of the menu.
The result was pretty much what I expected—a watery puddle of murky liquid sat in the middle, the barely melted cheese scattered across the pie in uneven blobs. It was most assuredly not buffalo mozzarella, and the the tomato sauce lacked the sweetness of the best that San Marzano has to offer.
The crust was rather dense and lacking the lightness and airiness that I usually associate with Neapolitan pies. It also had far more yeast, to the point of it being the dominant flavor in the mix. I didn't notice it on the regular pie, so perhaps extra yeast is added to the dough to make it rise more like the pizza in Naples. It is a shortcut that doesn't work. In any case, any time saved in making it is wasted in the oven, which is just not hot enough to turn out a true Neapolitan pie. This is precisely the type of pie that gives Neapolitan pizza a bad name; nobody would feel compelled to try the form again if confronted with this version as their first experience.
Having said all that, I can imagine that a Piola would be a welcome addition to many locales that otherwise lack even decent pizza. While I would not recommend the Neapolitan-style pie anywhere (not even in the Naples, Florida, branch) the regular thin crust with its low moisture mozzarella and mild sauce might be better than what is available around it. But NYC has so much great pizza that this Italian import, its pedigree aside, just can't compete. At least in the absolute terms of flavor.
Bargains abound, however, If you go at lunch, when you can get a pie and a salad for $9. Or on Sunday evenings, when $14 gets you all the pizza you can eat. But quantity is no virtue when traded for flavor. Perhaps Piola might be a good choice elsewhere—Honduras, for example, where a branch is set to open—but in NYC, it is not a pizza I could recommend.