There are some things about modern life that seem so ideal as to almost be apocryphal.
Take a truly “family friendly” movie, for example — one that delights the kiddies but also engages the adult mind. Or a restaurant that is convenient, reasonably priced, with terrific food, prompt service and a pleasant environment for everyone from the kindergarten crowd to the senior circle.
In film, you can rely on a handful of actors and directors to produce enjoyable, tasteful fare. When it comes to Asheville eateries, count on chef Reza Setayesh. Ten years ago, his flagship, Rezaz Mediterranean Restaurant and Enoteca in Biltmore Village, firmly established his reputation as a savvy, stylish restaurateur. In late 2009, Reza followed up with Piazza on Highway 74 in East Asheville.
Piazza is not a sequel…and it isn’t Rezaz Lite. It’s upbeat, self-contained and a bit quirky, but features all of Setayesh’s trademarks: high quality ingredients, a professional and courteous staff and a menu geared toward his constituency. “It’s very accessible — a fun, comfortable, casual place,” observes manager Gabriel Dickinson. “It serves the needs of the local clientele. The area really needed a place where you could get great food in a relaxed atmosphere without having to drive downtown.”
There is nothing pretentious about Piazza. The décor features whimsically repurposed materials: “pizza” wall hangings topped with found objects, tin-tile fronted counters, bedspring chandeliers, strings of party lights and classic red-checked tablecloths. At center stage, pizza chefs in smart grey caps provide live entertainment, working deftly at the artfully tiled, wood-fired oven in the main dining area.
On a recent Thursday night, my companion and I ambled in and found ourselves seated amid a diverse crowd that included first graders, first daters and a “girls-night-out” group. Our server, Kerri, was amiable and knowledgeable about the menu… and the wine and beer options (Piazza regularly features Asheville based brewers). She suggested that we try the week’s wine specials: Man Vintners Sauvignon Blanc, bright, crisp and summery and Melini Chianti, which had a pleasant bite. At $5.00 per glass, they were quite a good value and appropriate accompaniments to our appetizers: Mussels Marinara ($6.99) and a bowl of Minestrone Soup ($5.99).
Piazza’s food is simple, but prepared with that “Reza flair,” which highlights the textures and flavors of the ingredients. A generous portion of perfectly prepared Prince Edward Island mussels arrived in a cloud of garlic-scented steam, swimming in a tomato broth so flavorful that I was tempted to ask for a straw in order to not waste a drop. Fortunately, the plate of fresh crusty bread — sliced thin and drizzled with olive oil — did the trick. My companion’s soup was a savory mélange of fresh veggies in a tomato base, so delectable that there was a minor tussle over who would commandeer the last bit of bread for soak-up detail.
We were soon presented with our entrees. My Chicken Parmesan ($9.99) was nestled beneath a lava-flow of fresh mozzarella. The paillard-thin chicken breast, encased in a crunchy breadcrumb crust, was moist and had a slightly smoky flavor that contrasted beautifully with the bright, tangy marinara sauce (all about the San Marzano tomatoes, without unnecessary embellishments). The roasted vegetable side was a celebration of lightly seasoned celery, carrots, green beans, onions and peppers.
Since Piazza is — at it’s heart — a pizza place, my companion ordered the classic Margharita ($7.99 for the 10 inch). It did not disappoint. Thin crusted, dressed in that lovely marinara, studded with fresh mozzarella and basil and glistening with little pools of olive oil, it was a feast for the eyes and the palate. We washed it all down with a smooth, peppery Indaba Merlot ($6.00).
As we enjoyed our meal, we noticed that the “girls-night” contingent was sharing the Spaghetti Bowl ($2.99 individual, $4.99 family size). The pasta (either penne or spaghetti) is paired with a mix and match menu of toppings served in individual sauceboats, ranging from the basic Butter and Parmesan ($1.99) to Alfredo ($4.99) to Shrimp Scampi ($6.99). They seemed to be having quite a party sampling the diverse options.
After the main course, I wandered to the café/bar section where the desserts (all made in-house) are displayed. The options were nearly overwhelming, and I was sorely tempted by It’s My Pie ($4.99), an individual, cast iron baked goodie featuring seasonal fruit, but opted for a moist and chewy Coconut Macaroon dipped in dark chocolate ($2.95) and an Espresso (served with a lemon twist in true Italian style). Still, I couldn’t resist a taste of my companion’s Éclair ($3.75), which proved to be light and fluffy with a sinfully creamy interior. Definitely a happy ending.
Piazza isn’t a blockbuster. There isn’t a lot of drama here—just a wholesome good time. But like the sleeper movie that ends up sweeping the Oscars, I’ll wager that word of mouth will end up bringing this indie production the attention it deserves…and I’ll be sitting in the front row and applauding.