Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hidden in Plain Sight

If you're anything like us, you have a list on your fridge of all the restaurants you want to try. Ours is 80 places deep and we're beginning to collect names of restaurants in cities all over the world, so we decided to tackle our list one dining experience at a time and first up was Piazza Italia, a restaurant that was oddly enough not on our list.

Maybe it was because Piazza Italia is located in the Pearl District. Ok, it was because it's located in the heart of the Pearl District, that we had no interest or even had the cute Italian restaurant on our radar. But that was the past!

The tiny little restaurant has few tables and reservations are highly recommended, but we managed to get a table right away even if it was right by the front door and right in front of the meats and cheese display case, torturous!

After staring at the tubs of mozzarella and huge wheels of hard cheeses in the case, we had to start our dinner with a caprese salad. It is amazing how much an excellent balsamic vinegar can elevate a simple salad as this. Subconsciously we probably knew Piazza Italia's caprese salad was going to be good from the complementary bread basket and deliciously simple balsamic and olive oil offered at each table.

The mozzarella and tomatoes weren't particularly delicious, but the combination of the cold and creamy with the pungent basil, along with that delicious olive oil and balsamic vinegar with plenty of fresh pepper and salt made this very simple salad into something worth fighting over for that last perfect bite.

Our simple and fresh pasta entrees arrived as soon as we mopped up the last bits of olive oil and balsamic vinegar from the caprese salad. The pastas were exactly the way pasta should be - light in sauce, fresh, bold, comforting and hearty. The tender plump shrimp and al dente cooked linguini was perfectly sauced with a light olive oily pesto. The pesto was not creamy or overly pungent, a delicate balance and what a pesto should be.

The other pasta entree we ordered was rigatoni bolognese. A craving for a hearty meat sauce was prompted by the bold and peppery chianti carafe we had ordered. The special of the night was spaghetti and meat balls and the meat balls were simmering in a thick tomato sauce in a steamer tray in the display case next to the cheese and meats we were sitting next to - again, torturous!

The meatballs seemed like too much of a commitment and we opted for the bolognese meat sauce instead. The rigatoni pasta also sounded appealing. We wanted to see how a supposedly real Italian joint does meat sauce. And boy were we pleasantly surprised. Again, not a heavily sauced dish allowing the al dente pasta to be an equal player in the dish. The meat sauce was like a chili, thick with a heavy beefy tomato taste that tasted more of the ground beef than of a tomato sauce, something that would be difficult to duplicate at home.

Pasta dishes are basically two flavors - the sauce and the pasta. And Piazza Italia pulls it off authentically. Exactly what you expect from the descriptions and beyond what you are expecting to get in a simple pasta dish.

Seated next to the display case meant we saw many dishes being brought out to its table and the item we knew we had to order the minute the Italian waiter walked pass us with it was the tiramisu. Decedent, creamy, coffee flavor heaven is the best way to describe this tiramisu. Our dessert forks arrived with our coffees before the tiramisu and we did not put them down until the last bit was eaten.

Most of the staff at Piazza Italia were Italian, not Italian American, but Italians living in America - prego. Which added to the authenticity of the restaurant. The refreshing thing, and what we think elevates Piazza Italia as a good excuse to head into the Pearl District, fight to pay for parking, long waits and snooty people, is the reasonable prices for such fresh and delicious Italian food. Oh and there's the wall of wine that's pretty appealing.

We might even say its a gem of a place, hidden in plain, busy, trendy sight.

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