For the last few years, it seemed like light rail was inching closer to Glendale. Those hopes were dashed, at least for the time being, by a recent vote of the Glendale City Council. While the city’s financial struggles and unresolved issues of the track’s final destination may be keeping trains out of Glendale, it’s thankfully still possible to enjoy one of Downtown Glendale’s best restaurants in Downtown Phoenix. La Piazza PHX, an offshoot of Glendale’s La Piazza al Forno, is located just a block or two from multiple light rail stations in the city center.
La Piazza Locale is one of two VPN-certified pizzerias on First Street and one of many wood-fired pizzerias in and around Downtown Phoenix. La Piazza PHX is the most centrally located of them all with a location within walking distance of major office towers, cultural facilities, entertainment centers, and sports venues. The space is part of a small restaurant row along this block of First Street, home also to a pub, a coffee house, and a juice bar. Bike racks are embedded in parking racks right outside with more options elsewhere on the block.
The dining room is a small, L-shaped space, and most tables have a view of the beehive oven in the open portion of the kitchen. Solo diners or couples who wish to watch the pizza making can sit at the four-seat counter that faces the kitchen. Outside, a small, linear patio lines the First Street sidewalk. There’s an all-day menu, along with a small selection of panini available only during lunch service. Look to the chalkboard up front for any daily specials such as a summer salad of greens with prosciutto or a seafood pasta dish full of clams and mussels.
The menu features 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 palle di riso, also known as arancini, three 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 a fryer in addition to a wood-fired pizza oven. The montanara pizza, described as a Neapolitan delicacy, 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. Traditional Neapolitan pizza is known for its yielding, almost soupy center, and the time in the fryer amplifies those qualities. Likewise, the calzone is fried, creating a puffy layer of crust around a filling of ricotta, mozzarella, salami, and tomatoes.
Fried dough makes additional appearances throughout the menu. 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 of cheese, tomatoes, vegetables, and cured meats. 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, a few classic Italian cocktail options, and bottled beer from both Italian and domestic breweries.
How much wood-fired 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 long-anticipated train to Glendale never arrives, a second branch of a restaurant originating in that city has already made its own contribution to the thriving 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)