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Less is More 

While fast and casual, the "Italian Chipotle" commits to quality

Piada Italian Street Food is one of the hottest new fast-casual dining concepts in America right now. In just over two years, the Columbus-based chain has mushroomed to 10 units, including its newest outpost in South Euclid. Next up locally are shops in Beachwood and Rocky River.

Invariably described as the "Italian Chipotle," the concept features an Italian flatbread (similar to a large, thin tortilla) that diners customize with grilled meats, fresh vegetables and sauces. The interior design is crisp and modern, with blazing-white subway tile, chunky wooden tables and stools, and vivid LED lighting.

You might have heard of the man behind the concept. Along with his brother Rick, Chris Doody launched the Bravo and then Brio restaurant chain, building it up to 80-some units before selling off control to investors. Also in the Doody family is Lindey's, a 30-year-old fine-dining fixture in Columbus' German Village neighborhood.

Despite Doody's hospitality pedigree – or likely because of it – Piada's rapid growth does not signal success, but rather a starting point.

"We worked hard to develop the brand," says Doody, adding that the concept was in development for almost a year before the first customer ever sat down. "We've opened 10 in two and a half years and we're still working hard to refine the concept and make it better. By no means do we feel like we've figured it all out yet."

On the night we dined there, a line extended literally out the front door and into the cold. That is completely reasonable given that it's a new restaurant with a still-green staff dishing up a novel concept with its own learning curve. Still, it took us well over 20 minutes to belly up to the counter to place our order.

"It should be 10 to 12 minutes from the door," Doody says.

The comparisons to Chipotle are apt – and welcome, according to Doody ("Chipotle is one of the most successful restaurants out there."). Diners start by choosing either a piada sandwich, a pasta bowl, or a salad bowl. Decisions that follow include choice of meat (chicken, steak, sausage, salmon), choice of sauce (three hot, three cold), and selection of 20-some cold toppings.

In Italy, piadina are griddle-cooked flatbreads folded around a few choice ingredients like prosciutto and cheese or Nutella and banana. Here, they begin much the same – flatbreads are heated to order on a stone griddle till hot and puffy – but end quite differently. Namely, diners stuff them to bulging with unlimited free toppings.

"No, in Italy they would never put pasta in a piada," Doody replies when asked about the practice, which seems de rigueur here. "We are trying to educate the diner to teach them that less is more."

A new menu with "chef's suggestions" aims to guide diners to more sensible arrangements as opposed to going hog wild with fillings. Not only is "less more" in terms of flavor, but adding too many cold toppings inevitably results in a cold sandwich.

I followed that approach and ordered a steak piada ($6.98) with spicy tomato sauce, thick shavings of parmesan, and a fistful of arugula. It made for a substantial and delicious meal, one that still was too large to polish off. The wife's chicken pasta bowl ($6.98), built atop a nest of al dente angel hair, was sauced with creamy Parmesan and topped with artichokes, Parmesan, Peppadew peppers, and arugula. It needed a good toss at the table, but it too was fresh tasting and enjoyable.

The third option – a salad bowl – starts with a massive cardboard bowl filled with mixed greens that diners customize with meat, sauce and toppings.

Sides include something called a "Piada stick" ($1.95), a flatbread lightly filled with cheese, pepperoni or artichokes. They are rolled into long cigars, baked and served with Parmesan dipping sauce. They are tasty, but perhaps redundant if you're already eating a piada. I'd consider pairing one with a salad bowl.

Despite having to wait a few minutes for our fried calamari ($4.95), it wasn't crispy. It was, however, tender and well-seasoned, made all the better thanks to the inclusion of fried hot peppers. It is served with a warm tomato sauce. Also on the sides menu is spinach and artichoke dip and three soups.

We were thrilled to see wine on the menu – more so when we learned that a good-size pour costs just $1.25. Both the red and white are economical tap wines, pulled from a keg. Unfortunately, our red wines were so cold that we attempted to warm with our hands before drinking them.

When I related my experiences to Doody, it didn't seem to surprise him one bit. You can have two wildly successful restaurant chains to your name, put in a year of R & D on a promising new concept, open 10 thriving units in two years, and all it takes is for some staffer to fiddle with the cooler thermostat and ruin a drink and, perhaps, an entire meal.

"We're working hard every day to get things right, so as soon as we get off the phone believe me..."

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