After reading an enthusiastic review online, I was eager to try Va Piano, an international chain of German-owned Italian fast food restaurants that recently opened its doors at a few DC area locations. I visited the new Ballston locale. Sadly, I was disappointed with my visit last Saturday night. The fact is, the place is confusing. Even after reading all about the process online, and then having it explained to me by a friendly hostess, it still took me several minutes to figure it out. It's clearly easier for a repeat visitor, but with the first trip causing so much confusion, I could see how people would not make a second attempt.
Here's how it works: upon entering, you are handed a menu and a credit-card like card. When you order your dish(es) at the different stations (pasta, salad, pizza and antipasti, dessert) you or the cook swipe the card and it records your order. At the end of the meal, you take your card up to the register, they scan it and see what you ordered, and you pay. There is no table service, although someone came by more than once just to see if everything was ok.
I think the main draw here is pizza, and if it's not, then it should be. They offer several pasta options. You can choose from about 12 types of pasta, made fresh on the premises, and there are probably about 15-20 different sauces you can choose for your pasta. I made the mistake of ordering pappardelle with a gorgonzola and walnut sauce, while my boyfriend ordered fusilli with fresh cherry tomatoes and basil. Probably any pasta dish will be a mistake until they make a few adjustments, so stick with the pizza.
The good (or bad) part is that you can watch them cook the food right in front of you. The sauces are cooked behind glass in what appears to be a wok. The guy had the heat so high that he immediately burned the garlic and onion in the pasta dish with tomatoes and basil. It was boiling! The "gorgonzola" sauce, a flavorless creamy mixture, was poured into another incredibly hot wok and left to boil away with some chopped walnuts thrown in. They take the fresh pasta (already portioned out in containers along the back wall) and drop it into the boiling water when the sauce is almost ready. They then mix it all together and my guess is that they offer parmesan cheese on top no matter what. My pasta was flavorless, except for the fresh parsley sprinkled on the top as a garnish, what's more, it was so stretchy that I could stretch one of my noodles to about twice its original length before it snapped.
- Garlic should be dorato, or "golden," not charred brown and black
- Onion with tomato and basil, garlic with tomato and oregano or parsley
- Parmesan (or hopefully parmigiano) cheese does not belong on all types of pasta sauces. I read a great article highlighting some of the rules, and if I find it, I will post its link here
- When pasta is too stretchy or elastic, it means the dough was worked too much
Some plusses: I tasted a pizza with ham and mushrooms which was pretty good. The crust was ok and if I ever do decide to go back to Va Piano, I will definitely get a pizza. (Careful on translations: on the menu, prosciutto means regular ham, and prosciutto crudo means prosciutto - these are correct since the word prosciutto by itself in Italian just means ham, and crudo means raw, or in this case, cured). I also tasted 2 desserts: the tiramisu', which was not bad although the savoiardi (lady fingers) could have soaked a little more in espresso because they were dry; and panna cotta with a strawberry syrup on top. I love the way the panna cotta was served - in a mason jar with a bail-wire clamp. They just pop the top open and serve it in the jar on a plate. The panna cotta was good, and the strawberry provided a fresh sweetness to each bite. The restaurant has a modern look, a very open layout, and many seating options, from lounge chairs and low tables on the bar side, to hightop tables and stools on the kitchen side, to picnic tables and benches outside. Fresh herbs abound in tiny pots on the tables and in the restaurant's very own (indoor) greenhouse.
I hope that Va Piano can make some improvements in the kitchen, because with the great location, great decor, and interesting menu, it could become a neighborhood hotspot.
N.B. The bathrooms were great - very modern and quite clean. Only downside: they're tricky to find because the door that leads to them looks like an exit.