8/29/2014 update: Since this review was published, La Piazza Locale has changed its name to La Piazza PHX.
Ever so slowly, light rail is inching closer to Glendale. This past week, planners showcased two possible routes connecting the existing line on 19th Avenue to Downtown Glendale. Of course, there are still many steps in the process and it’s unlikely trains will reach Glendale until at least a decade from now. In the meantime, one of Downtown Glendale’s best attractions has recently come to Downtown Phoenix. La Piazza Locale, an offshoot of Glendale’s La Piazza al Forno, is now open just a block or two from the Washington / Central and Jefferson / 1st Avenue stations.
La Piazza Locale is now one of two VPN-certified pizzerias on First Street. The other, Pomo, is situated several blocks to the north near Roosevelt Row, but La Piazza Locale is situated right in the heart of the Downtown business district within walking distance of the major sports and entertainment venues. The space was formerly occupied by Cartel Coffee, which has moved a few doors south. La Piazza Locale has definitely added some warmth to the space — literally in terms of the beehive oven and figuratively in terms of the decor and atmosphere.
There’s no patio, so after walking a few blocks or locking up a bike at the racks along First Street, go right inside. Staff will seat guests at tables throughout the L-shaped dining room, but solo diners or couples who wish to watch the pizza making can sit at the three-seat counter that faces the kitchen. There’s an all-day menu, along with a small selection of panini available only during lunch service. Look to the chalkboard behind the counter for any daily specials such as a summer salad of greens with prosciutto or a pasta dish full of clams and mussels.
The menu leads with the signature food, pizza, but there are several appetizers and salads available to start the meal. A spinach salad lists bacon as the first ingredient, and the bowl delivered to the table confirms that with as much crisp meat as greenery in the mix. The insalate locale, a basic spring mix, and the rucola (arugula) salad are lighter touches. Appetizers include a trio of arancini, three risotto balls with exteriors of crisp rice and molten interiors of cheese. The focaccia is unadorned pizza crust with some tomato sauce on the side.
The crust at La Piazza Locale is good enough to hold up on its own, but It’s also the starting point for almost twenty different pies, many of them variations on a few themes. There are two versions of the classic margherita, one with cow’s milk mozzarella and another with more supple buffalo mozzarella. The marinara is a simple cheeseless pizza. The Italian Stallion is the meatiest of the bunch, with Schreiner’s sausage, pepperoni, and prosciutto all piled onto one hearty pizza. The bianca and quattro formaggio are white pies without tomato sauce.
Unique to La Piazza Locale, as least in Phoenix, is the use of frying in addition to a wood-fired pizza oven. The montanara pizza is flash-fried and then finished in the oven. The result is a filling crust with a texture somewhat reminiscent of Native American fry bread, although it’s not quite the gut bomb as some state fair versions.The frying does produce a more yielding, soupy center, an attribute that’s always appreciated in authentic Neapolitan pizza. Likewise, the calzone is fried, producing a puffy layer of crust around a filling of ricotta, mozzarella, salami, and tomatoes.
Fried dough also makes an appearance at both ends of the meal. Angioletti fritti are soft bread sticks dressed with tomato, herbs, and parmesan. Angioletti con Nutella are exactly what the name suggests: little fried bread sticks dressed in the popular hazelnut spread. During lunch, the same dough is baked into pieces of focaccia that bookend panini with filling combinations like burrata e speck, creamy mozzarella with smoked prosciutto. If some foods seem omnipresent on the menu, remember that VPN certification sets strict standards on allowable ingredients.
Beyond myriad uses of pizza dough, La Piazza Locale serves half a dozen pasta dishes. The ragu Napoletano uses thick, truncated tubular noodles known as pacheri tossed with a thick tomato gravy. It’s a meat sauce, but one that relies on stewed chunks of beef rather than ground meat as in the Bolognese sauce that is more common in American restaurants. The pesto pasta is rich with ricotta adding a creamy texture. The puttanesca is an assertive version of a classic dish with plenty of capers, olive, chiles, pepper, and anchovies providing notes of salt and spice.
Desserts are all familiar Italian restaurant favorites prepared in house to high standards. The ricotta cheesecake is simple and satisfying. The tiramisu is relatively light with a creamy layer on top yielding to dense, espresso-soaked cake beneath. The cannoli reverses the layers with a dense, crisp outer pastry yielding to an airy interior. The small bar at the counter limits the drink options, but those that are available match the food effectively. There’s plenty of Italian wine. The beer is bottled, but a few tap handles dispense spirits such as Campari for selected cocktails.
How much “artisan” pizza can Downtown Phoenix support? It’s hard to say, but there are now nearly half a dozen high-quality pizzerias in the city core, and two on the same street now have the coveted VPN certification. Thankfully, each place has its own niche and its own distinctive specialties to help differentiate it from the competition. In this case, even if a train to Glendale is up to a dozen years away, a second branch of a restaurant originating in that city has already made it contribution to the Downtown Phoenix pizza culture.
1 N. 1st St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Washington / 3rd Street and Washington / Central stations (westbound)
Jefferson / 1st Avenue and Jefferson / 3rd Street stations (eastbound)