Famosi per la pizza — the self congratulating slogan of renowned Italian-based pizza chain, Piola. With locations in ten countries, including two in Houston, the global chain is, in fact, famous for its pizza.
On a lazy Monday afternoon in Houston the Midtown location is, regrettably, all but empty. A genuinely unfortunate scenario considering this oft overlooked brick oven kitchen is likely a top 10 pizza joint in Houston. Doubly so because of its generous happy hour offerings from 4 to 7 pm.
Originally opened in 1986 in Treviso, a small canal city just north of Venice, the idea was a modern re-imagining of the traditional Italian pizzeria. Impossibly thin crusted Venitian street pies from a brick oven, fresh pastas and a youthful cocktail program aimed at the happy hour working crowd. At least, that's what the company managed to ship overseas years later.
On the surface, Piola is a flashy chain restaurant with laminated specials menus and a loud, "trying too hard to be Italian," sense of decor. Though, if you can see past its aesthetic flaws, it is also a legitimate Italian pizzeria with both corporate and culinary roots in the old country.
There's something to be said about the ability of global chains to achieve consistency across dozens, sometimes hundreds of stores spread across the globe. Or, perhaps, there's more to be said about a Mexican line cook's ability to recreate authentic ethnic food from just about anywhere in the world (never change, Houston.)
Whatever the case, the burrata pie at Piola is a masterpiece of tangy, mildly acidic tomato sauce, light and airy burrata cheese and fresh basil on a crispy paper-thin crust. It's an afternoon on the canal with a cheap bottle of Chianti and nothing to do but eat and drink.
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Our happy hour selection was a $5 personal margherita with mozzarella, the same tangy tomato sauce and more basil. The 8" pie was cut into squares with a thicker crust that was, nonetheless, perfectly crunchy.
Other signature pizzas include the Piola, a margherita with sun dried tomatoes, the Brooklyn with shredded chicken, gorgonzola and broccoli, and the Braccio di Ferro with ricotta and spinach. Pastas here are well-loved. In particular the four cheese Gnocchi Legano and the tomato sauce-covered Gnocchi Pompei.
From the bar, signature cocktails are an uninspiring bunch with predictable ingredients like vodka, Aperol and prosecco. The wine list, though short, is more appealing with reasonable bottle prices on a handful of Italian varieties and $3 glasses at happy hour.
Despite its vapid, chain restaurant exterior, Piola is an Italian gem most Houstonians overlook in their pursuit of great pie. While not the cheapest in town, at an average of $15, these 12" pizzas are heads and shoulders above many of the more commonly patronized joints in the area — a fact that seems all but lost on an uninterested Midtown populace.