Bartender Chat: Stephen Caronna Of Piola

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The first time I went to Piola, I thought "damn, this place is bright." It had been a crappy, rainy Monday. I was hungry and in a nasty mood, but the place actually cheered me up. It was happy hour, and I ended up getting pretty happy. I ordered a few French 75s for $5 each and the Rio de Janeiro pizza, oven-baked chicken breast and catupiry cheese on a thin crust, which was delectable.

And I met Stephen, the restaurant's super-friendly and attentive bartender, who let us sample some of his favorite cocktails and taught us a few things about Piola. The Houston location is the farthest West in the US, with other locations in New York, Virginia and Florida and across the globe in Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and Honduras.

Where are you from? Houston, born and raised. I grew up in the Bellaire area, but then my parents moved out to Magnolia, so that's where I went to high school. As soon as I graduated I came back inside the loop and started working, going to U of H.

How long have you been bartending? Close to two years. I've been here at Piola almost a year, so pretty much from the beginning.

What are some other jobs you've held besides tending bar? I used to work for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and the hours were insane. I was a branch manager with two stores. It was a good gig, but I prefer to live a little, not just work, so I went back to school and started learning to bartend.

What are you studying? My major is communications, I'm studying film, but my minor is food and beverage management and marketing.

How would you describe the bar's aesthetic? It's very vibrant and colorful. All the lights hanging are handmade and imported from Italy. We want to show that not all Italian restaurants are dark; this is modern Italy. When I create the drink menu, and we change it every few weeks, I like to use fresh ingredients but also colorful stuff that matches the restaurant...lots of reds and greens...I try to match the vibe here. Also, the art changes every three months or so. We have a Brazilian artist now, André Amaral. When we have a new artist featured, we'll have a little party with free food and drink specials so people come in and check out the new art.

How would you describe the crowd? We have a lot of regulars that will be here for lunch and then come back for dinner because they liked it so much. We get a lot of industry folks and restaurant owners. A lot of the Italian and Brazilian community come in here because it most resembles the kind of food they'd get at home. It's authentic. But yeah, it's a diverse crowd.

Do you have a specialty or a drink you pride yourself on? I love classic and craft drinks. We do a lot of caipirinhas, the national cocktail of Brazil. Piola got big in Brazil and now it's sort of an Italian-Brazilian fusion place. We have a Sgroppino al limone which is a blended drink made with locally made lemon gelato and vodka.

Where do you like to go to get a drink or something to eat? My new favorite place is Down House. They have great craft beer, excellent cocktails, really good food and it's just a really chill place. Another favorite is Hearsay. Hal, the bar manager, comes in here all the time and he's a great bartender. I'm actually going to be doing an internship there in January, helping with the cocktail menu and bartending, so it'll be cool getting to work at one of my favorite bars. I know I'm going to learn a lot.

*Wildcard: What is the most disturbing sound? When someone says they don't like gin. It's just a pet peeve. I'll ask "why, what have you had?" and they always say "gin and tonic." Well, of course you don't like gin. I'll make something for them and they love it, and when I tell them it's gin, they're like "Aww, you tricked me!" It's just so good.

Piola is located at 3201 Louisiana St., Suite # 103, at Louisiana and Elgin. Stop by, say hi to Stephen and let him make you a delicious strawberry basil caipirinha.

Specials: The happy hour is fantastic-- Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. with free appetizers (pizza, bread sticks and dips, even gnocchi) and a $3, $4 and $5 cocktail menu. Speaking of gnocchi, Piola also does an all-you-can-eat gnocchi night on the 29 of every month. For only $13 per person, you can stuff yourself with their handmade gnocchi, sampling any of the 10 different sauces. I have yet to partake, but maybe that'll change this month. Ladies' night is every Tuesday starting at 7 p.m. and any glass of wine or sangria is $ 2.95.

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