Between a dead car battery and an inhaler emergency (thanks for nothing, Walgreen's) last night, I didn't make it to Piola (3201 Louisiana, 713-524-8222) either on time or in my typical calm, composed state.
My dining companion was patiently waiting for me at the bar, a huge smile on her face. I thought to myself, What are you so goddamned happy about? as I grabbed a stool next to her, deciding suddenly that the bar was going to be the best place to blow off my anger, being conveniently located next to a lot of wine and Fernet Branca. Getting a real seat at a real table would have to wait until next time.
Courtney, the friendly bartender, picked up my vibes immediately. "You look like you need a drink," she smiled. A few seconds later, an enormous glass of Cab was sitting in front of me and I felt slightly better. And then I saw what my dining companion was grinning at like a Cheshire Cat, and felt miles better.
From 4 to 7 p.m. every week day, Piola serves free appetizers in the bar with the purchase of any alcoholic beverage. And these aren't your standard bar appetizers, either.
A thin-crust pizza with smoked salmon and Brie arrived on a wooden cutting board a few minutes after I did. "This is called the Copenhagen," said the manager with a thick Italian accent as he set it down. Arriving along with it were two plates of gnocchi, one in a mild cream sauce and one in a smoky, bacon-flecked red sauce. To my left, polenta cakes topped with Italian sausage and Parm; to my right, polenta cakes topped with prosciutto.
"Is this all for us?" I asked, stunned.
"Yep!" grinned Courtney as she set napkins and silverware in front of us. "They just keep 'em coming during happy hour. Enjoy!"
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By the time my dining companion and I had plowed through the offerings, we were both full. Who needed dinner after all that? And especially considering we'd only spent $16 on the glasses of wine and a Campari with soda.
But after tasting the magnificent thin crust pizza from the Italian chain -- Piola is based in Trevisio, Italy and this is its first location in Texas -- I can't wait to get back for more. It's tough to make a thin crust that has (a) any flavor, (b) isn't thin like a cracker, (c) has a nice bit of give when you bite into it and (d) can stand up to toppings without getting soggy or floppy. Piola passed the thin crust test with flying colors.
The gnocchi, too, were wonderful albeit a little lighter than I prefer -- give me a slightly dense and chewy gnocchi any day -- but the two sauces were light and flavorful without overpowering the delicate pasta.
On the 29th of each month, Piola follows the tradition of Saint Pantaleon's feast day that's observed from Italy to Argentina and serves platefuls of gnocchi for good luck. Out on the west side, Manena's also serves gnocchi on the 29th of each month, but Piola offers all-you-can-eat gnocchi on those 11 days a year. Be sure to eat yours with a dollar bill tucked under your plate to bring wealth and good fortune your way.