1101 Environ Way
East Highway 54, Chapel Hill
Pizzas and entrees: $8—$13

Piola is an Italian restaurant chain that now has 10 branches open in the US, including one in the Highway 54 East development in Chapel Hill.  It’s done in bright colors, with grey floors and a bit of a squiggly line motif.

Loud Italian pop plays in the background, which fits with the clientale I’ve seen in the restaurant ranging from frat boys to groups out for after work dinner and drinks. Piola offers pasta, salads, and calzones, but pizza is their specialty, with four different types of 12-inch pizzas (white, classic, neopolitan, and Piola’s house recipe). There any many ingredient combinations among those categories but with a lot of overlap, so the options are actually less overwhelming than they appear on the menu.

Most importantly, Piola has a great happy hour deal of a free appetizer with the purchase of an alcoholic beverage from 5 to 7 pm weekdays. Taking advantage of that special, I ordered their kiwi + strawberry caipiroska, which was excellent. My accompanying appetizer, the bruschetta, was just as good.

The bread, the same as was in the bread basket, was wonderfully soft and managed to maintain that texture even when lightly toasted. The tomatoes and olive oil were fantastic, especially with the high level of salt that brought their flavors out magnificently. More basil was called for, however.

Laura’s caprese salad was beautifully arranged, as most caprese salads can’t help being with their green, red, and white colors.

She thought it was great, and I don’t doubt it. We managed to share a pizza even with all that appetizer deliciousness.

We ordered the Sarajevo, a white pizza with smoked mozzarella, ricotta, spinach, and regular mozzarella. It was beautiful, especially the ricotta clouds dolloped on top. However, that cheese layer was a quarter-inch thick. That’s too much cheese for any pie to handle. Perhaps if the smoked mozzarella had been more dominant, it would have worked, but it was far too much cheese. The crust was delicious, but I couldn’t fully appreciate it under the burden of that cheese challenge.

Ben ordered his own pizza, the Mantova, a Piola house-recipe pizza.

It’s made with carpaccio (yes, carpaccio on pizza!), brie, arugula, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and mozzarella. He thought it was great.

On a second trip, Ben had a tasty calzone with ham, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and mozzarella, and Laura had the Calvino salad with mixed greens, gorgonzola, cherry tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers, and rare NY strip steak.

Laura looked rapturous in her appreciation of the salad. My pizza choice was a huge improvement over the Sarajevo.

It was the Carbonara, a classic-style pizza made with pancetta, parmesan, tomato sauce, and mozzarella with beaten egg brushed over the top before baking. I thought it was a fantastic combination and enjoyed having a pizza that subtlely reminded me of breakfast. The tomato sauce was bright, but I did think it could be more complex. Otherwise, no complaints here!

To sum up, Piola’s focus on quality ingredients like their tomatoes, bread, and olive oil makes for some really great dishes and cocktails. Sometimes, the pizza combinations measure up and sometimes they need a bit more work. So if you don’t mind trying a few until you find a gem, definitely give Piola a shot.

3 stars

Reviewed 10.14.10 and 10.26.10.

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