They are all over Europe, these almost-tacky "fast-casual" Italian spots (we like the tree and the seating and the shape of the bowls; the red chandelier and the signage, not so much), and Vapiano, Inc., has made inroads in America, popping up here and there on the East Coast over the past couple of years. A couple of weeks ago a Vapiano Restaurant finally made its debut in the only town that REALLY matters, New York City, one block south of Union Square, a soaring, bi-level, corner space on University Place. It'll certainly get the walk-by traffic in that location; question is, does it have the food (and the prices) to pack in enough students and families and partiers and movie-goers to make an impact? After two visits last week, the early answer is: yes, absolutely.
At first glance Vapiano Restaurant seems a bit out of place here on University; it's a little too Times Square-ish, a little too "food Vegas" for the neighborhood (though a T.G.I. Fridays just opened a few blocks north of here, so what do we know…). And, frankly, we were a little skeptical about the Vapiano's Restaurant gimmick: you order your food cafeteria style, waiting at different stations for different things–mix-n-match pastas and sauces, pizza, insalate, paninis–adding the cost of each purchase to your Vapiano card by tapping it where they tell you, which then becomes your bill, payable on the way out. A bit like the system at Hill Country, but more high-tech. When your tray is full, you grab a seat at one of the four-tops or communal tables, either on the main level or in the more lounge-y upstairs. The whole thing seems like it could be a line-waiting nightmare, but it all ran pretty smoothly in our early visits.
Our Salame Vapiano pizza arrived one night looking a bit doughy and un-charred, but, really, this was a huge hit at our table, all super-cheesy and salty with enough of the sweet and acid tomato sauce to balance things out. Crispier than it appears, too. Also well-curated and -assembled here at Vapiano are the salads: we've ordered both the Greek and the Mista, and were rewarded with large bowls filled with just-tossed, lively ingredients. The Dolci selection (which you go get at the bar) is predictable, but the Chocolate Mousse was refreshingly semi-sweet as advertised, not a total sugar bomb, and, again, like everything else here, it tasted fresh, like real food. And so, despite that ugly sign outside, we have to say: Vapiano Restaurant, welcome to the neighborhood.
Vapiano Restaurant Details
Vapiano Restaurant is located on the southeast corner of 13th Street and University Place, and is open on Tuesday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., and on Sundays and Mondays until 12:00 midnight. For more information and a complete menu, please see the Vapiano Restaurant website.