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Cheap Eats

A taste of Italy -- via Germany

(Ike DeLorenzo)
By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / August 25, 2010

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The upscale “fast-casual’’ restaurant chain Vapiano, based in Germany, opened its first franchise in New England last month in Boston’s theater district. The interior is breathtaking. At a cost of more than $2 million, it should be. Designed by Italian architect Matteo Thun, it feels like a large, swanky Euro-lounge. Strategically lighted, it has gorgeous thick-milled wood tables, which surround marble moats, a tree, or nothing at all. Instead of chairs, there are comfy orange leather bar stools on which to perch and strike a pose. On a recent Saturday, a crowd of mostly young, fashionable, club-ready women were doing just that to a dancy soundtrack.

The payment model is novel. Customers get a “chip card’’ on arrival. There are no waiters. The card is presented at the various stations (pasta, pizza, panini) and the bar, where there are good wines for about $5 a glass and ceremoniously prepared espresso drinks of uneven quality. When you leave, the staff scans your card and you pay. It’s a handy way to avoid a shared bill.

I’m Italian-American, so I’m skeptical of a German chain assembling pizzas and pasta. But the small artisanal-style pizzas ($9.95-$12.95) — with thin, golden brown, semolina-floured crusts, and strikingly fresh locally sourced toppings — are excellent. Basil and other herbs are grown in a solarium-tower at the back of the dining room.

Pasta is made on site. “Vapianisti’’ (the term preferred by the company over “employees’’) mix the flours and extrude the pasta from a refrigerator-sized machine in full view of the dining area, with mixed results. “They are still in training,’’ admits assistant general manager Nicole Kenneally.

One night, the conchiglie-shaped pasta is soggy and the composition oddly grainy. A day later, it is perfect in salsiccia con mirtillo rosso ($11.95), pasta with meaty, spicy pepperoni and a judicious dose of sweet dried cranberries in a light sauce of tomato, onion, and herbs. Ask for shaved Parmesan on top.

Conchiglie is one of the eight shapes you can choose at the pasta counter. Bolognese ($11.95) is interesting. The carrots are shredded and barely cooked — hardly traditional — but oddly appealing that way. The mixed antipasti ($8.95) of roast vegetables, olives, cheese, and bruschetta is good to share.

There are few men here. The Vapianisti admit the customers are currently about 80 percent female. One reason might be that no slabs of protein are on the menu. The best you can do in that department is an aromatic, perfectly baked chicken pesto pizza ($12.95) or a “pizza americana’’ ($11.95) topped with sausage and pepperoni, and somehow light and not greasy.

The European aesthetic and menu offer a fun and unusual dining experience at reasonable prices. It may be even better when they find pasta makers who know their trade.

Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at ike@theideassection.com

VAPIANO

191 Stuart St., Boston, 857-445-0236, www.vapiano.com. All major credit cards. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $3.95-$9.95. Entrees $9.95-$12.95. Desserts $2.75-$5.75.

Hours Sun 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Mon-Wed 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Thu 11 a.m.-midnight; Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-1 a.m.

Liquor Full bar.

May we suggest Mixed antipasti, pasta with salsiccia con mirtillo rosso with shaved Parmesan, chicken pesto pizza, caprese pizza.