Monday, April 28, 2008

Restaurant Review: Pizza Nuova





This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 19/04/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.


After eating dinner at Pizza Nuova, I felt sick to my stomach.

That’s never a good sign for a restaurant. But in this case, my nausea was to be expected. How else could I possibly feel after eating five different kinds of pasta, a few varieties of pizza, some creamy risotto, and a great big slice of tiramisú?

The all-you-can-eat restaurant concept is one of America’s less appetizing exports. It involves paying a set price to eat as much greasy food as you can until you either vomit or surrender. In the U.S., there’s usually a big hot and cold buffet so that you can serve yourself exactly what you want in whatever massive quantities you require.

When they opened Pizza Nuova, the Ambiente Restaurant Group decided to do all-you-can-eat a bit differently. Individual dishes can be ordered off the menu as in a normal restaurant. And, other than the antipasti bar, there are no buffets; waiters come around sporadically with little pizza and pasta pans to serve you themselves.

The problem with this modified system is that you don’t always get to decide what you eat. Each dish is brought out one at a time, and there’s no way of knowing which foods will be offered to your table later. Should I have this spinach gnocchi? What if I’m too full to eat the spaghetti Bolognese? Apparently, you are free to tell the waiters what kind of dish you would like them to bring next, but because this wasn’t made clear anywhere in the restaurant, I didn’t get a chance to try it out for myself.

Of course, you don’t have to finish what they give you; I ate only a few bites of most of the foods I sampled. By the end of the meal, I was stuck with a nasty-looking plate covered in stale lasagna and half-finished pizza crusts.

I had lots left over not only because I’d wanted to taste as many different dishes as I could, but because the food just wasn’t very good. Almost every dish was too salty. The penne all’ arrabbiata tasted of little besides garlic. Some of the pastas were on the dry side, as if they had been waiting too long to be served, while others seemed unnecessarily rich and creamy. Made with imported fresh mozzarella and baked in a wood-burning oven, Nuova’s pizzas aren’t too far from the Neapolitan pies that Ambiente claims to emulate. But even these weren’t exactly right – their pizza crust was very doughy, almost to the point of sogginess, and the tomato sauce was marrd by too much salt.

There are some rare moments of excellence here, as in the case of a porcini mushroom risotto made with Arborio rice and cooked perfectly al dente, or a tiramisú that’s just as creamy and espresso-soaked as it should be. Still, there aren’t enough highlights to really make the place worthwhile.

Pizza Nuova seems like a great deal: all-you-can-eat pizza and pasta for 328 CZK (or 295 CZK before 18:00) and unlimited access to the antipasti bar for 275 CZK, with the pizza / pasta / antipasti combo-punch available for 515 CZK (or 475 CZK before 18:00). Tomáš Karpíšek, head of Ambiente, has struck gold yet again – customers have been flocking to Nuova since it first opened, eager to stuff themselves with limitless amounts of Italian-esque grub.

But how much pizza and pasta and marinated eggplant can you really eat? That depends both on your eating capabilities and how long you’re willing to sit in one spot.

Nuova occupies a large 2nd-floor space next to the Kotva department store and across the street from the Palladium shopping mall. Big windows let diners look out onto the hustle and bustle while they eat, and the interior is decked out in inoffensive beige leather and wood paneling, making for a warm, lively atmosphere. There’s even a play corner to keep the kids occupied while their parents are gorging themselves.
But most of the restaurant’s seats are benches that don’t have any back support. The uncomfortable seating arrangement doesn’t seem to be a coincidence; in fact, it appears to be a part of Pizza Nuova’s larger plan, one that makes sure that all-you-can-eat diners don’t eat all that much.

During the three or four dinners I’ve had at Pizza Nuova, I’ve noticed a few suspicious patterns. Waiters seem to bring out the heaviest courses, such as gnocchi, risotto, and white pizza, towards the beginning. Only after you’ve filled up on these leaden treats do they start to come around with lighter (and usually more expensive) fare.

The wait between dishes can be tedious, and once you’ve been eating for a longish period of time, there’s always a conspicuous break in the meal service, a solid ten or fifteen minutes during which no food is brought out at all. As scientists have explained to dieters for years, the brain has a certain lag time when it comes to realizing that the stomach is full. So when the waiters come back after the pause with a pan full of four-cheese gnocchi, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that you suddenly don’t feel so hungry anymore.
And then there’s the aforementioned liberal use of salt, which serves the dual purpose of filling up the stomach and encouraging the ordering of additional beverages (incidentally, a friend told me the other day that he “almost died of salt poisoning” after eating at Restaurante Brasileiro, the all-you-can-eat Brazilian version of Pizza Nuova).

If all this seems a little paranoid, it shouldn’t. The Ambiente restaurant chain owes its success to the shrewd decision-making of some very good businesspeople; for better or worse, as with all good franchises, very little goes unplanned.

So while the service at Pizza Nuova is usually friendly and polite, I can’t help but feel that they’re trying to cheat me a little bit. That might be all right if the food was somehow exceptional, but it really isn’t. It’s not good enough to make me want to go there and order a plate of pasta or a pizza off the menu, and it certainly isn’t good enough to pay extra for all the different variations to converge in my stomach and meld themselves into a big, salty, carbohydrate cream-ball.

Just the idea, in fact, is making me feel a little bit ill.

Pizza Nuova

Revoluční 1/655
Praha 1
map
Tel.: +420 221 803 308
Open Mon - Sun 11:30 – 23:30

images: www.ambi.cz

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Food news: Food and drink fests, and a sweet new hideaway for Luka Lu

Official dates have been announced for the second annual Prague Food Festival, with the feasting set for a few months earlier this time around. From June 20th to the 22nd, you'll be able to sample selected delicacies from some of the city's finest restaurants, including Aromi, Allegro, Essensia, maze, and The Sushi Bar, under open summer skies at Žofín on Slovanský Island. Tickets should be on sale soon.

And there's a whole new kind of food fest coming to Prague this year, too: the Czech Beer Festival, which is touting itself as the largest gastronomic event in the Czech Republic. With an enormous supply of beer to be tapped into glass mugs, an extensive menu of local specialties, and an anticipated attendance of 150,000 - 200,000 visitors, the 10-day guzzlathon promises to be every bit as raucous and sloppy as Munich's famed Oktoberfest. Still, its organizers insist that they plan on encouraging the "sensible and cultural consumption of beer." We'll see how well that goes for them...

On a recent trip to Balkan restaurant Luka Lu (formerly Louka Lu), I discovered that they've transformed the drab courtyard out back into a picturesque winter garden. It's quite removed from the front part of the restaurant, so you really have to know the room is there in order to find it, but it's really adorable and cozy -- definitely worth a special visit. Go have a look and let me know what you think.

images: praguefoodfestival.cz, staropramen.cz, lukalu.cz

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Apologies...

...for the lack of posts. Prague Spoon restaurant reviews will be returning in a few weeks, and I'll be putting up some smaller posts in the interim.

Thanks for your patience! See you soon.

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