NAPLES — “Famosi per la pizza” reads the slogan on Piola’s menu. Famous for pizza. And they should be, since this swanky-looking pizzeria at The Mercato offers more than 60 varieties.
Having so many pizzas to choose from can prove challenging, but I suggest you take your time and read through the whole menu. You will find:
■ Italian classics such as Margherita ($8.95), a simple tomato sauce and mozzarella pizza
■ American interpretations of pizza — anything with chicken on it would never be served in Italy.
■ Some gourmet versions of pizza: the Kiev for instance: a white pizza topped with sweet prosciutto di Parma and creamy stracchino cheese ($17.95).
Piola should know pizza; it is a Treviso, Italy-based chain that has recently branched out in the United States. The Naples restaurant was the sixth and latest addition on this side of the ocean.
The restaurant makes your life a little easier by dividing its pizzas into four categories: classic, featured, Neapolitan style and white pizzas. Pizza purists will enjoy classic pizzas, as will those who went to Italy on vacation and fell in love with simple, traditional pie recipes, such as the diavola ($10.95), a cheese pizza topped with thinly sliced hot Calabrian sausage; or the tonno e cipolla ($11.95), made with tomato sauce, mozzarella, tuna and onions.
Whenever I see that a restaurant serves a pizza marinara ($7.95) I always order it, because from that restaurant’s rendition of this incredibly simple pizza —a crunchy crust topped with tomato sauce, garlic and basil, no cheese— I can tell if they can whip up a good pie. To me pizza is all about the crust and the sauce and Piola’s marinara scores high on both counts: the crust is thin, but not crumbly or hard, and the tomato sauce has the right amount of salt and spices in it.
If you are looking for something more adventurous, take a look at Piola’s featured pizzas to find original combinations of ingredients on the same crunchy crust. The Como ($14.95) features a sophisticated pairing of porcini mushrooms and prosciutto di Parma. The prosciutto is added at the last moment, right before the pie is served so it maintains its characteristic sweetness and tender texture. The porcini are the real deal and they taste like a rainy afternoon in the mountains, a flavor sometimes I long for in the scorching Florida heat.
Neapolitan-style pizzas, on the other hand, are somewhat of an acquired taste. Growing up in Northern Italy I never knew they made pizza differently down in Naples — a little smaller, with a chewier, thicker crust and thicker edges. I discovered true Neapolitan pizza as a teenager when a traditional Neapolitan pizzeria opened in my hometown of Milan. Give it a try — but don’t expect it to be crunchy or to eat it with your hands. Good examples of how they eat pizza in Naples are the Regina Margherita ($11.95), made with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, and the Pompei ($12.50), same as above with the addition of spicy salami. Neapolitans eat it with a fork and a knife, mopping up the excess juices from the fresh mozzarella with the crust.
The fourth and last type of pizza served at Piola is the pizza bianca (white pizza), which is similar in concept to a focaccia because it doesn’t come topped with tomato sauce. Smoked cheeses, salmon, prosciutto —these pizzas have higher-end ingredients and offer a decadent alternative to common pizzas. The Rotterdam ($16.95), topped with creamy stracchino cheese, mozzarrella and bresaola is a wonderful recipe that combines the saltiness of Italian-cured beef bresaola with the milder taste of the two different cheeses.
Piola also specializes in pasta dishes and gnocchi, the potato dumplings my grandma used to make for me every week. Piola’s gnocchi are, for lack of another word, perfect. They are the right balance of potatoes, eggs and flour that creates dumplings that are soft but don’t fall apart or stick to each other. The Gnocchi Pompei ($10.95) are served in a simple tomato and basil sauce, and even though the portion is more than generous I found myself eating all of it. Grandma would have certainly approved because she always thought good gnocchi is a work of art.
One more interesting thing that Piola offers is a rarity around town: staying open late. With the new Silverspot cinema open upstairs from the restaurant, Piola is proposing the Italian model of going to a movie and grabbing a bite to eat afterwards.
A late dinner-eater, I’m all about it. It’s always good to have options, whether it means that I can choose between more than 60 pizzas or the fact that I can choose to eat them late at night.
■ Where: 9118 Strada Place, Suite 8170; 592-5056, www.piola.it
■ Hours: Noon to 11 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday, noon to 1 a.m. Thursday to Saturday
■ Cuisine: Italian, specializes in pizza and pasta
■ Beverages: Beer and wine —with very affordable “house wine” bottles for $21
■ Atmosphere: Modern, sleek and European-chic
■ Service: Some servers are definitely better than others
■ Prices: Pizza are $7.95 to $17.95, pastas less than $15 and starters less than $12
■ Recommended dishes: Experiment with Piola’s 64 pizzas (prices vary depending on pizza) or have a bowl of gnocchi with tomato and basil sauce ($10.95)
■ Verdict: Piola serves a mind-boggling variety of pizzas and pastas in a funky, modern dining room that stays open until the wee hours of the morning.
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