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From Here to Gratuity

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Recently I found myself wondering, "After five years of writing about Richmond restaurants, what more can I say about decent pizza?" I thought about this so frequently that apparently I started muttering the question aloud. Everyone I ran into had an opinion, and several actually offered suggestions, including that they write this column.

"Talk about New York vs. Chicago?" a colleague offered. Did that in the Candela's review back in 2005. "What about boutique wood-fire and stone cooking methods?" Covered it in the piece on Shockoe Bottom's Sette (2005). And I can't write about inventive toppings, traditional methodology, or post-industrial chic, since I already explored those behind-the-scenes influences after two great meals at Maldini's on Forest Hill (2006) .

So how does Arianna's Italian Grill & Pizzeria extend the pizza empire of Maldini's, Mary Angela's, Piccola, Pronto, Pietro's and Vinny's Italian Grill?

This new pizza place doesn't aspire to unique flavor pairings and traditional, artisanal ingredients, à la Innsbrook's late Circus Mediterranean Grill, an OK place that up and left town in the middle of a dark night in 2006. No, in Arianna's pizza kitchen, they make dough, grate cheese and apparently open a lot of cans to complete the line prep. Mushrooms, check. Artichokes, check. Roasted red peppers, check. Arianna's eschews the retro, wood-oven thing by having a gas-fired Hobart, crammed into a tiny and gleaming steel galley kitchen. So what can I say? How about this: At Arianna's, wedged on a corner in the Museum District's Devil's Triangle, they serve a decent pie. Decent how? If it's been a hard week and you're hungry, it will seem like the best you've ever eaten. Why? Because it's pizza. The poet Richard Hugo once remarked, "Some whiskey is better than others, but there is no such thing as bad whiskey." Pretty much the same with pizza.

Now that we've gotten the obvious out of the way, let's talk about the extraordinary. Let's give a little praise where it's long overdue. Thus, an ode to Arianna's service. This city has thousands of professional servers and perhaps a dozen standouts. By some amazing bit of luck, Arianna's has garnered one of them. I won't breed staff jealousy by naming him or her here. Just go in. It'll be clear. If you get one of the good servers, who are friendly and efficient, well enough. But if you get the great server, you'll notice. This one understands that service is not something to be done between conversations with the bar staff, nor is it limited to ferrying orders and food from table to kitchen and back; it's about making guests' visits as pleasant as possible. This one sees a child on the edge of hunger-induced dissolution and realizes that the order of plain noodles with butter is medicinal — i.e., needs to be out on the fly. This one handles a full house — three booths and half a dozen tables — with a noteworthy centeredness. When this one is moving, it is quickly. When this one is tableside, it is with focus. This one navigates a unique request without judgment and with an eye for solutions. This one seems to like working at Arianna's, which says a heck of a lot about the establishment. It's enough to make me like eating there.

And when a truly stellar server is bringing to your table a chicken parmigiana that tops out the price list at $12.95 but is still a great value for a shared dinner — when paired with a Greek salad filled with peppers and bricks of feta — it's enough to pencil Arianna's next to Joe's Inn on the list of good Richmond red-sauce joints.

And like its siblings and forebears around the city, Arianna's offers a wide variety of sandwiches beyond the old-school subs, including Reubens and other evidence of New York lineage, that take it half a step above the ordinary.

Arianna's comfort food and the gamble of hitting a great server's shift should earn it a spot for Fan dwellers in the come-as-you-are-as-long-as-you're-hungry rotation. And if the kitchen staff ever decides to shun the cans for something fresh, maybe even locally grown, well, that'll be something to write home about. S

Arianna's Italian Grill and Pizzeria ($) NS
700 N. Sheppard St.
353-6002
Monday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday: Noon-10 p.m.
www.ariannasgrill.com



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