Venue Review: Vapiano
The Charlotte Observer
Vapiano’s name, according to its German website, comes from an Italian saying: “Chi va piano va sano e va lontano.”
The site translates this as “One who takes life easy and relaxed lives healthier and longer” – though most translations I found go more for the proverb-y “Slow and steady wins the race” or “Slowly but surely.”
All of which are interesting, considering Vapiano is a bustling, somewhat chaotic, fast-casual international chain, serving varied Italian fare in a setting with lots to look at and lots to figure out.
Despite the seeming contradiction, I have come to like it. Rather a lot.
For one thing, once you figure out how it works, it’s pretty easy – and now that it’s been open a year in uptown, most of your fellow diners have figured it out, too. You enter, get a credit-like-card from a host, then go to whichever station offers what you seek: Pasta, Salad, Pizzas & Antipasti, Panini. Beverages are at each. Want alcohol? Go to the bar up front.
At each station, a cook – in white, topped in a red bandana – asks what you’d like, then tells you to slide your card across a glass square set in the counter, recording your order. Go to as many stations as you wish. When you leave the place, a host runs your card through a reader for your total. (Have a big group that hates splitting checks – or has wearied of splitting evenly/unfairly? Vapiano’s your place.)
Once you’ve ordered, you’ll be given a beeper. In the meantime, pull an orange stool up to one of the blond wood tables, or nestle into a banquette. Note the herbs, both on your table and at a larger lighted herb stand, and the live, if a bit bedraggled, olive trees, around which a few tables are constructed.
From there, you can watch pizza crusts and pasta toppings tossed. Stay at the counter if you want to eye them closely – and if you’re interested, those cooking will cater to you.
I ordered conchiglie with sausage and roasted vegetables and was asked if I liked my food spicy, then how spicy (on a scale of 1 to 5): A 3 meant about a half teaspoon of minced fresh hot chiles added to the beginning of my sauté.
Listen closely, for you’ll be asked about cheese, too, and other things, depending on the dish. Note: conchiglie here (say cone-KEE-lyeh, even if your cook says con-CHEE-glee) is more like small rolled-parchment shapes, not the seashell-like shapes you may picture. There are no pronouncing directions on the pasta list; guess or point.
One unfortunate detail: Each individual portion of uncooked pasta is packaged in a plastic clamshell, from which it’s thrown into boiling water. Surely some other portion-control mechanism is inventable.
Pizzas are nicely done, thin-crusted and well-balanced – meaning toppings are proportionately light, not voluminous. That also means each 12-inch, char-dotted pie feeds one, and at $7.95 for a Rucola (mozzarella, sauce, arugula and shaved parmesan), that’s just fine.
Generous plates of pasta do well, too, from pesto with additional pine nuts, toasted before tossing, to tender (if small) shrimp. These run about $8 to $11 – the pricier include shrimp, beef filet, and the uncharacteristically fusion-ish chicken with orange-chile sauce and bok choy.
Salads prove big, too. Though they tend to be over-dressed, the ingredients I had were fresh and fine. Panini were my only disappointment, the sandwiches leaning to the greasy. Go to the bar for a selection of inexpensive desserts.
Customers come in all forms, from the elegantly heeled, en route to a show, to the family of five with tiny toddlers, and everyone must move around a lot. So expect noise levels to vary wildly from night to night, all punctuated by the buzz of beepers and the clang of stainless bowls tossed aside after each order is combined and plated.
The place is quick and offers good value. Perhaps coaxing diners to that combination is Vapiano’s slow and steady goal. With more than 100 sites now around the world, it would seem to be winning.