Vapiano, a Fine European Import
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007
It's the latest European import to hit the American market, and the concept is almost irresistibly funny: a hybrid of an Italian concept and German engineering at a budget-cosseting price. But it's not a car, it's a bar, or rather, a pizza and pasta bar that offers fast but not prefab fare, and the three Vapiano restaurants (one in Ballston, one downtown and one opening in Chinatown later this year) are better and more ingratiating than expected.
"Vapiano" is Italian slang for relaxing or kicking back, as in "chi va piano va sano e va lontano" -- loosely, those who take life easy live long and well -- and the idea is fast food in an unrushed atmosphere. Although it's new to the United States (the Ballston locale was the first on this side of the Atlantic), Vapiano has been going strong in Germany for five years, founded by Germany's first McDonald's franchise owner. Everything from the recipes to the decor to the "credit card" you're issued at the door has been assembly-lined and fine-tuned to make your visit go smoothly and almost like a family gathering.
The card, for instance, has a computer chip that you press to a reader whenever you order and totals the bill as you go, so there's no paperwork; you simply pay at the exit. There are no waiters, although there is a large bus staff and generally a couple of managers wandering around to allay confusion or dissatisfaction. (Tips are supposed to be shared, but there are jars at the bars, and a few extra dollars never hurt.)
The design is pleasantly understated -- something between Tuscan-sun farmhouse chic and early Scan: oversize Milan-show armchairs up front, glass-enclosed gas fireplaces and seat-yourself high kitchen tables of a soft taupe-ish oak, sanded smooth but unvarnished and with the grain slightly lifted as if long in use. You're implicitly encouraged to treat them as communal tables. (In Europe, the troughs in the center of the tables are filled with growing herbs you can pinch off; here there are only small representational pots -- though you can see the shelves of greens flourishing under grow lights nearby -- plus pepper grinders, salt, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.)
The kitchens are more than exhibition, they're interactive, which is a big part of the schtick. You start by perusing a menu card, which has pizzas on one side and pastas on the other, each divided into four groups. The pizzas are priced by toppings: Group A, featuring the basic margherita, one with grilled cherry tomatoes and cippolina onions, and a salami version, goes for $6.75 a pie; Group D, with a shrimp, black olive and arugula version; a pepperoni; and two rather intriguing recipes, the crudo e fichi and the vitello tonnato, described below, tops out at $9.75.
The pastas are similarly priced by sauce and toppings, and in the same price range (plain tomato sauce or pesto, for instance, up to the higher-priced beef strips and mushrooms or prawns and veggies), and in most cases you get to choose one of eight pastas. Ravioli comes only in two specified versions.
There's a long bank of cooks and cook tops, labeled "pasta," "salads" and "pizza and antipasto," and you order from one of the white aprons, swipe your card and, unless you want to watch, walk away with a vibrating remote to await its completion. Actually, you should watch your pasta being prepared at least once, because it's cooked in wok-like stainless steel pans designed to fit into convection surfaces that stay cool to the touch but transfer energy, i.e. heat, immediately to the food. Since the pastas are made on the premises (you can see the machines rolling) and are fresh rather than dried, they take only a couple of minutes to cook. You can buy the pastas and sauces to take home, too, but what's really envy-inducing is that stove-top setup. Sigh.
Although most of the sauces and toppings are reasonably familiar, a few sound a little strange: Lime butter and mint pasta sauce, for instance, is a light, chicken-stock-based broth with just a hint of citrus and fresh leaves tossed in with the pasta. But with a smattering of Parmesan and coarse pepper, it's very refreshing. Spicy Italian sausage with white beans and sun-dried tomatoes is a pleasant version of a summer standard. A recipe that is a sort of nod to the Asian noodles boom is the "tacchino piccante," chunks of moist seared turkey breast and bits of bell pepper and bok choy in a sweet-sour orange-chili sauce, rather less jarring than it sounds. (Though the veggies were a little scant, the turkey was not.)
The pizzas are thin crust, of a good if not great-tasting dough, tossed to about 12 inches across; a careful swirl of tomato sauce keeps the bottoms from going soggy. Again, most of the combinations are familiar, although an option of savoy cabbage along with the pepperoni is intriguing.
The crudo e fichi pizza sounds much like parts of a leftover appetizer and bruschetta tossed together in a hurry -- it's topped with long slices of prosciutto, fresh sliced green figs and acacia blossom honey topped with cheese -- but it's quite nice, with just a light drizzle of honey and a smear of tomato sauce for tang. The menu says the cheese is mozzarella; mine came out with Parmesan, but the sharper flavor actually seemed more appropriate. (The mozzarella, as sampled in a Caprese salad, is mild and smooth.)
There's also a vitello tonnato pizza, topped with slices of roast veal, tuna cream and capers, but the vitello, which is available as an antipasto, is better left to itself, because the veal, which is nicely tender and just pink, doesn't want more cooking, and the mayo-like tuna sauce is delicately applied. Both the vitello and the carpaccio are surprisingly substantial portions and high quality. At $9 -- and with a couple of complementary slices of the house's good bread and a half-price glass of pinot grigio or Montepulciano at happy hour -- they could well be the light meals of choice this summer. You can even add a side salad for only a couple of bucks.
As it happens, a few of the salad recipes seem in need of tweaking, or it might be that some of the staff haven't got them quite right. After a fairly long discussion about whether it was too early in the season for good tomatoes, and a generous offer by the cook of a taste of a piece, which was indeed on the green side, one diner instead chose the arugula salad. But that also comes with tomatoes, something she did not mention, and was topped not with crumbled Parmesan but with several long wire slices. The portion was appreciated, but the slices held off the dressing like a tent over the greens and had to be cut with a knife, not a graceful technique in a steep-sided bowl.
Vapiano seems to have instilled, or at least insisted on, an unusual level of congeniality in its staff at all levels, a trait one could wish for in more made-in-America chains. And considering the moderate prices, the tip factor can't be all that high, so be kind. Think of it as an investment in international relations.