Even before Piada Italian Street Food’s official opening, students had already begun referring to the restaurant as “the Italian Chipotle.”
When I first heard the phrase, I thought, “Great, another homogenous chain eats up any authenticity left on Forbes Avenue.” But after snooping around on the internet, speaking with the head chef, manager and Pitt grad Mike Lawrence and finally tasting the Piadas, cannolis and soups, seems that Piada is setting a new standard for other chains to live up to.
Lawrence calls Piada “new-aged” Italian food that is quick and made from authentic ingredients. The restaurant serves soups, salads, pastas, meatballs and most importantly, Piadas.
Piada’s menu is diverse, the food is fresh and the restaurant even boasts an actual chef — something that purely build-it-yourself restaurants such as Hello Bistro and Chipotle can’t claim. Still, Piada is a chain, just like the majority of the eateries that already stand on the primary campus streets.
The shorthand of “Italian Chipotle” seems to be sticking. But be careful what you say, because the staff does not encourage the comparison of a Piada to a burrito, even though the two dishes look strikingly similar.
“What differentiates us from [Chipotle] is that we are a chef-driven concept. Our menu is a lot more diverse, we do have more menu items and a lot of time goes into prep. We have a seasonal menu, too, so it’s constantly changing,” Lawrence said.
Piada’s opening may mark a turning point for Oakland cuisine without sacrificing price, time or flavor.
The restaurant sits on the corner of Meyran and Forbes avenues, in very close proximity to Chipotle and Hello Bistro, two restaurants that Piada will likely compete with. The Oakland location is Pittsburgh’s flagship store and the Columbus-based company’s 33rd store.
Pittsburgh claimed national acclaim in 2015 when it was named the Top Food City in the United States by Zagat. A New York Times article shortly after also noted the influx of interesting culinary cuisine in the area.
Oakland used to be part of this foodie landscape — host of independent coffeehouses such as Kiva Han once scattered its streets. But the neighborhood has largely abandoned its roots over the past 20 years, particularly along Forbes. The street, which used to be lined with quaint family-owned businesses, restaurants and coffee shops, is now filled with easily recognizable chain storefronts.
Lorraine Denman — who went to Pitt for both undergraduate and graduate school — has watched the transformation of Forbes take over some of her favorite places.
Denman, who teaches Italian language, literature and culture courses at Pitt, recalls a time when the campus streets held independent gems such as a coffeehouse called The Beehive and an Italian espresso and coffee shop called Cafe Zio.
The Beehive resided in the castle-like building that now houses a T-Mobile. It was a coffeehouse and theater for film and live performances downstairs and a bar upstairs that was popular with graduate students.
Cafe Zio was just around the corner on South Bouquet Street, and it served up classic Italian coffee, complete with signs in Italian and even baristas that spoke Italian.
“[Cafe Zio] was our home away from home. Oakland was a large Italian community for many decades,” Denman says. “I’m disappointed. The development of chains — as much as they try to offer options — they take away from the original places.”
Oakland residents have long since said arrivederci to the days when they could utter a “buongiorno” or “ciao” walking out the door with a foamy cappuccino in hand. The Digital Plaza now sits where Cafe Zio once was — no one seems exactly sure what its purpose is, though the pigeons have found it inviting.
Caribou Coffee and Peet’s Coffee have both tried to settle in where Kiva Han once was, but now the building — near the intersection of Forbes and Atwood — is empty. Pitt has announced that, you guessed it, a build-your-own chain called Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza will move in.
Forbes now glitters with uniform signs and ads that can be found in any city, especially in any college town. Surely if you only ate in Oakland you would be disappointed with the lack of variety, though you might be wooed by the availability of quick eats. But this neighborhood isn’t representative of Pittsburgh as a whole.
Though many popular restaurants like Richard Deshantz’s Meat & Potatoes and Trevett Hooper’s Legume are too expensive for most college students, there are also restaurants such as Gaucho Parrilla Argentina in the Strip District and Noodlehead in Squirrel Hill that provide a casual atmosphere, with inspired food at a reasonable price point.
Modern, youthful and admittedly bougie restaurants have infiltrated Pittsburgh’s foodscape — where we once delighted in the idea of fries on a salad, we now ask for farm raised beef and fries made with truffle oil. Oakland, however, has fallen behind the trend and students are clearly hungry for something new.
Even after an entire weekend filled with VIP opening events, the line for Piada on its grand opening day snaked through the restaurant’s large space. The restaurant is elevating food standards near campus and urging Oakland to take small steps back toward Pittsburgh’s burgeoning culinary scene.
Though it can’t replace local restaurants and old staples such as Cafe Zio, Piada seems to meld both worlds — merging the hip foodie trends of modern dining with quick, build-it-yourself service.
Sure, Piada is a chain, but give it a chance, like I did, if only to see what the chef has to say.