Feb. 18 2015 12:00 AM

Pizzano's offers 'pub grub' and beyond

Blue collar charm

Standing in Piazzano’s parking lot, I looked across Grand River Avenue at a darkened, silent lumber yard. It struck me that Piazzano’s is like several other Lansing restaurants — Art’s Bar, DeLuca’s and Harry’s Place come to mind — that sprung from this town’s industrial taproot.

These are neighborhood joints, unremarkable looking blue-collar islands far from the clustered restaurant districts of downtown Lansing, East Lansing or suburban shopping malls. You have to figure that these modest dining islands have something going for them, or they’d have faded from the scene long ago.

What keeps Piazzano’s ticking is a faithful clientele, above-average pub grub at an affordable price, and a waitstaff that is prompt and, in my experience, unfailingly polite.

You will not find wildly imaginative cuisine at Piazzano’s. The wildest, craziest thing on the menu is an appetizer: Their Reuben Rolls ($6.99) feature slices of corned beef, swiss cheese and sauerkraut tucked into phyllo dough and deep fried.

What you will often find here are meals prepared with attention to detail. One night, I opted for their regular Friday special, prime rib. I ordered the “queen” cut, a 12-ounce slab of beef ($16.95). I asked for it rare, and rare it came — but with a blackened, spiced-up crust on the edges. Just the way I like it. This is arguably the best prime rib I’ve eaten in greater Lansing. On a previous visit, I had the Five Cheese Mac and Cheese with a sausage add-on ($13.98). The blend of cheeses and the crisp, browned crumb topping were perfect for a bitterly cold evening. I should have skipped the sausage, though. It’s the typical, boring sausage chunks you get on just about any sausage pizza. I’d recommend Piazzano’s instead use quality bratwursts that are first boiled, then broiled or browned and finally cut into bite-size chunks.

During the same visit, Judy had the wild mushroom pasta ($12.99). It was an excellent choice. The nuttiness of the mushrooms meshed well with an understated, creamy Alfredo sauce. It is the single best thing I tasted in our two visits.

This was the night when we tried the aforementioned Reuben Rolls. Though I’m a fan of corned beef and sauerkraut, I gave these a C . Judy, who doesn’t care much for sauerkraut, loved them. Go figure.

Our friends Bruce and Jan are Piazzano’s regulars, with Bruce declaring it “the best pub grub in town.” They dined with us on our second visit. Bruce had his favorite, baked spaghetti ($9.99), and I agreed with him that the meaty marinara sauce really made this dish.

Most meals come with a small loaf of warm bread, plus a small platter of olive oil with a dab of marinara sauce swimming in the middle. I could have done without the spicy marinara, but the saucy sauce was a hit with Judy.

I’m less enthusiastic about the two kinds of soups I tasted. I ordered the always-on-the-menu Michigan bean soup ($3.29 for a cup). It arrived piping hot (good), but I didn’t understand the need to add potatoes to the beans. It’s a hearty soup, and no doubt a favorite with many. For my money, the best bean soup in town is at Art’s.

Judy and Jan both ordered the Friday night soup du jour, crab bisque ($3.29).

They loved it; I did not. What I tasted was probably imitation crab. When I occasionally make crab bisque or crab cakes, I splurge by buying quality, lump crab meat. It’s expensive, which is probably why many restaurants don’t use it, but you really can taste the difference.

There are things that make Piazzano’s stand above standard pub grub. One is their nightly specials, which include Wednesday’s turkey dinner. They cook whole turkeys a la Thanksgiving. For $7.95, you get turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing and a salad. Now, that’s a deal.

Incidentally, when you get your bill, at the bottom they promote the next night’s special (e.g. the turkey dinner). This “Check out tomorrow’s specials” tagline is smart advertising.

And now to the service, which I thought was exemplary. On our first visit, Christin was patient and polite despite our raft of questions. She even ranked her personal preferences on the various Piazzano Roll appetizers (Reuben Rolls are one of several kinds you can order).

On the next visit our server was Natasha. It was a Friday evening, and Piazzano’s was soon packed. Natasha was busy — slammed, as they say in the business. But she and her fellow servers took it all in stride, delivering food and clearing tables with great efficiency.

That takes not only practice, but a mindset. You might call it a blue-collar mentality.

-Mark Nixon

Scene-stealing meatballs

The first time we went to Piazzano’s for dinner, we weren’t exactly sure where we were going. On Grand River Avenue, just west of Turner-Dodge House in a stand-alone building? It wasn’t ringing any bells. But as we drove down the street, the absolutely packed parking lot was a dead giveaway. We walked in through the door on the west side of the building and were momentarily befuddled when we couldn’t find a hostess to tell us where to sit. We eventually took steps toward the one empty booth in the restaurant and were reassured when a waitress motioned for us to sit down.

For once, the boyfriend and I weren’t ravenous to the point of sniping at each other, and we decided to share a salad and a pizza. The Antipasta Salad ($7.95) is a platter filled with shredded iceberg lettuce, topped with sliced provolone cheese (of the Kraft singles variety), recently packaged ham, salami and capicola, with a few cherry tomatoes, pepperocini, rings of red onion and a dish of overly sweet vinaigrette dressing. I think that an Antipasta Salad gives Italian restaurants an opportunity to shine. Spend a little more money on quality ingredients, make your own vinaigrette with a vinegar that has a little bite to it, and chop all the ingredients together so that the vibrant colors are highlighted and allow me to eat with my eyes before the dish is even presented. This Antipasta Salad was not that. It was quite the opposite.

Our 12 inch House Special pizza ($13.99) didn’t fare much better. The extremely dry crust was topped with pepperoni, onion, ham, green onions and mozzarella, all of which were serviceable, but I sucked down about a gallon of water just to get the crust down. Service was fine but unremarkable. What was remarkable was the atmosphere in the place — people were eating dinner to be sure, but others were just hanging out, spending time with their friends at their neighborhood joint. I like that.

On our next visit, this time with friends, we started with two appetizers — the Reuben Rolls ($6.99) and Piazzano’s Meatballs ($6.99). The Reuben Rolls were six deep-fried, two-bite Reuben sandwiches, served with Thousand Island dressing. Reuben sandwiches are one of my favorites, and these mini versions were fresh and fabulous. The meatballs, however, stole the show — the three giant beauties were topped with a light coat of marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. The meatballs were juicy, a little bit spicy, and just barely held together with fresh breadcrumbs. If these were nestled into a foot-long crusty baguette, they would make for a heavenly meatball sub fit for Andre the Giant.

For dinner I chose a special of mussels and shrimp with chopped tomatoes and green onions over linguini ($14.95). The entrée came with salad and bread, and I would have been better served by sticking with meatballs, salad and bread. The linguini dish was utterly tasteless, completely unseasoned, and there was a literal pound of it. There was no sauce to speak of on the pasta, and after a few bites of the grocery-store variety linguini I set down my fork and ate all the mussels. The rest of the dish languished in the refrigerator until it was tossed into the trash several days later.

The boyfriend was happier with his choice of BBQ Chicken Pizza. The chunks of chicken were thick and plentiful, the BBQ sauce was tangy, and the pizza crust was starkly different than that of our first visit. It was obviously the same recipe, but didn’t stick in our throats on the way down. If this is how pizza is normally made at Piazzano’s, I understand why the place was again positively jam-packed with diners.

Our friends had a buffalo chicken wrap — which didn’t have any actual buffalo sauce and was just fried chicken, cheese, and iceberg lettuce in a tortilla — and a Buffalo Style Burger, which purported to be mixed with jalapeño peppers, Louisiana hot sauce, onions, and pepper jack cheese. Our spicy food-loving friend said it was “kind of spicy, but not really.” He liked his chicken noodle soup much better, however, and the waitress was eager to tell us that the cooks made it themselves.

During both visits, the waitress tried her best to convince us to have a slice of the “homemade” cheesecake. If you’ll indulge my tangent, it really frosts my cookies when restaurants are proud to label something “homemade.” When I go to a restaurant — any restaurant — I want everything there to be homemade. I don’t expect to see packaged cheesecakes from GFS and bagged loaves of grocery store bread on the shelves next to cans of soup and jars of pasta sauce. If I wanted to eat convenience foods, I could do it at home, much more inexpensively. So quit with the “homemade” moniker, restaurateurs. I don’t expect my clients to be blown away when I tell them that their estate planning documents are drafted correctly and their names are even spelled right. It’s just part of the deal. But I digress.

Regardless, the homemade Snickers cheesecake certainly didn’t deserve any accolades. The familiar cheesecake texture and the visually pleasing presentation, I’m sure, have convinced other diners that they’re enjoying a special, decadent treat. The cheesecake was indeed decadent, but the chocolate and caramel drizzles on top couldn’t mask the totally milquetoast filling.

It hurts me to write this, since I know that many people truly love Piazzano’s. But if I want garden variety, inauthentic Italian food, I’ll make it myself.

-Gabrielle Johnson