Unlike the subject of my previous Brussels review, La Piola is not easy to miss. It's just off the place du Châtelain, has a fairly distinctive frontage, and is an Italian restaurant located in an area full of Italian (and other) establishments. Nevertheless, we initially managed to ignore it and carry on up the street: an unfortunate mistake to make in a torrential rainstorm. We soon retraced our steps, but dinner wasn't quite good enough to make up for that extra soaking.
The start was, admittedly, promising. This isn't a clichédly cosy neighbourhood Italian but the service was fine and prompt, and a kitchen station in the middle of the small dining room provided entertainment in the form of occasional frying pan-based pyrotechnics. As for the food, the numerous, and almost all highly positive, reviews I'd read seemed to focus on two things: pasta and cheese. We were duly presented with a fairly short menu, with burrata and scamorza featuring heavily amongst the antipasti, a range of pasta primi and a couple of meaty secondi (anyone who orders from all three must deserve some sort of prize).
The Bonhomme, last seen in another Italian restaurant on my old blog, and I shared a burrata with tomatoes as a starter (16.90E). The tomatoes would have definitely been labelled 'heirloom' in the UK and (unusually I find) were actually ripe, as well as being perfectly seasoned. The burrata had the correct, and delicious, contrast of stretchy skin and soft creamy curds inside, and although only eating half may have something to do with this I was pleasantly surprised to find it not too rich - it worked well as a precursor to a large plate of pasta.
Large plates of pasta then indeed arrived: pappardelle with lamb ragu (16.90E) for the Bonhomme, and calamarata with cime di rape and salami for me (16E). Now, it would be wrong to say that we didn't appreciate the care that had clearly gone into them. It was notable that the pappardelle were more al dente than the calamarata, as well as containing tender pieces of meat rather than the more bolognese-style sauce that might have been expected. My chunkier pasta matched the bitter green leaves and spicy sausage it came with well. As we ate, though, I started to think that these dishes lacked something. The flavours of mine would probably have been better on their own, with less tomato sauce - in fact we noticed that both dishes appeared to have been made from the same sauce base (in which the Bonhomme identified what he called 'pointless celery') - and in both everything seemed to blend into one after a while. There wasn't that simple deliciousness that you get from really good Italian cooking, when all the components of a pasta dish, even the most basic ones, take on a starring role of their own.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, and I shouldn't expect that sort of experience away from Italian holidays. Still, after the simple magic of the burrata, our main courses left us full, but in a disappointed rather than delighted way. Despite the reviews, I hope this isn't the best pasta Brussels has.
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