This Fast-Growing Midwest Chain Answers the Question, What Would Chipotle, But for Italian Food, Look Like?
You've got your pasta, your sauce, your grilled chicken, some sausage, a nice meatball or two, a bit of grated parmesan—could it be so hard to whip up, Chipotle-style, a bowl of Italian food? Yes, apparently. By now, we can't move for new pizza concepts in towns, cities and suburbs across America, but when it comes to that other Italian staple, pasta, the concept of quick-service remains more than elusive—it flat out doesn't exist.
That's because it can't exist, or so the critics have decreed—when a talented New York chef opened Pasta Flyer last fall, whipping up bowls of fettuccine alfredo and basil pesto fusilli within minutes, the response was muted. More than a couple of writers opined that it simply couldn't be done. Pasta is too hard, it's too tricky, it's not like rice, you can't deliver something so delicate, so immediately. Maybe the critics are right—other talented chefs have floated the idea of starting their own fast-casual pasta concepts, but so far, no such luck.
As the argument rages on in places like New York and California, the Midwest has heard our concerns, and they're totally ignoring them. Starting less than six hours' drive from New York, at any given lunchtime, you will find plenty of eager eaters lining up for pasta at locations of Piada Italian Street Food, a Columbus, Ohio-based fast-casual restaurant that's now expanded as far east as Pittsburgh, and all the way out to Minnesota; they're in Texas now, as well. Founded back in 2010, there are now more than forty Piada locations, and counting.
Starting at less than $7 for an America-sized bowl, a visitor to Piada can select from three different offerings, each made with angel hair pasta. There's the Carbonara, with a dab of parmesan-rich alfredo sauce, bruschetta tomatoes, flakes of salty pancetta and fresh spinach. There's the Basil Pesto, again with that parmesan alfredo sauce, but also with the benefit of a dollop of green pesto, along with sundried tomatoes. Finally, you have the Diavolo, with a spicy sauce, those bruschetta tomatoes, and pungent green onions. All are mixed up right in front of you, and then topped with generous amounts of grated parmesan.
The real thing? Not so much. Then again, neither is Chipotle, and that never stopped them from taking over the world. Tasty and reasonably priced, also like Chipotle? You bet. For about a dollar more, you can super-size your bowl (they don’t call it super-sizing, but wait until you see this thing, more tub than bowl), and probably not need to eat for the rest of the day.
Maybe don't bring your Italian friends here, unless you secretly enjoy watching them cry—these pasta dishes aren't going to win any awards, but there's nothing wrong with this food, either—it's actually very good, once you make your way along the learning curve, laying to rest all of your questions, questions like, what exactly is an alfredo sauce doing in my pesto, or, when will Americans stop calling pasta with a cream-based sauce Carbonara, because it's not, it's really not?
Piada may be all about that pasta, but the idea actually came when the chain's founder sampled a piadina from a kiosk in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. The simple and tasty flatbread, typically made with just a few ingredients—flour, salt, lard, olive oil and water—serves a similar purpose to France's crepe in that part of the world; it is a vehicle for all sorts of fillings, both savory and sweet.
They're here at Piada, too, and they're stuffing the thin, stone-grilled beauties with everything from grilled chicken to avocado. They're also sprinkling them with a bit of parmesan cheese, rolling them up, and selling them as a (calorific) snack. Go to a Piada location at lunchtime, and you'll see—just like Chipotle, people are into this. They like this. Piada, clearly, is on to something.
Exactly what, might be something of a mystery, to the first-timer—the company has now been around for a while now, but the uninitiated would be forgiven for wondering if Piada weren't still in experiment mode. The menu isn't terribly long, but there's a lot going on. Do you want a wrap? (Sorry, a piada?) One of those giant bowls of pasta? Did you get lost on your way to Panera, and end up here by accident? That's cool, because they've got power bowls and salads, featuring your quinoa, your avo, your other superfoods.
As if those tubs of pasta weren't enough to satisfy your appetite, here you are also tempted toward a range of rather ambitious sides, too, from fried calamari, to cups of creamy lobster bisque. There are cannoli chips for dessert, served with filling for dipping. In a word, the menu is all over the place, like you're in a test kitchen. It's a lot to take in.
Based on visits this past spring, obviously for very scientific study, it's difficult to not wonder if Piada might be better served by choosing a couple of ideas to really, truly nail down. The pastas, while good, could be improved; is the supremely delicate angel hair, for example, the best means of conveyance? The shelf life of the also delicate piada is, admittedly, super-short—should they be making them in advance to sit off to the side, where they quickly go limp? (Waffle cones, these are not.)
Don't let the drawbacks deter you from further investigation, however—the food at Piada is quite good, if somewhat unusual, the prices are sensible, accessible, and the line will typically move very quickly. There's a reason the company has been expanding, and there's a reason why people are going. The critics might not be ready to green light the idea, but the horse has already left the barn—pasta bowls on the fly are here, and it would appear that they are here to stay.