Vapiano’s – A Review on Italian Cuisine in Chinatown

Some of my favorite cuisines are those made at Italian restaurants.  I love the wood fired or brick oven pizzas, buttery cream sauces that melt in your mouth like pieces of heaven, and fresh bread served with extra virgin olive oil and spices for dipping.  They also seem to have an atmosphere that just screams, classy while still feeling home-like.  Some have magnificent sculptures, live foliage hanging from ceilings, flowers decorating tables, waiters and waitresses dressed up to the nines, and provide a very pleasant atmosphere that leaves one feeling content visually, aromatically, as well as literally.  For this post, I will give some insight on an Italian restaurant that Tim and I went to this past October for a friend’s birthday called Vapiano.

Vapiano is a franchise with multiple locations.  The one we went to was located in Washington, DC  in Chinatown.  When we walked in the door, we were greeted by a hostess that handed each of us a card.  Apparently, each individual person gets this card that  is used to swipe what you are getting to eat as you retrieve your selections from the various stations set up around the perimeter of the restaurant.  Not being familiar with this type of set-up, we were intrigued to see how this would work, especially for the party of 30 people that we were a part of.

Since happy hour was to end within the next 30 minutes, you can guess our first stop.  It was the bar.  Tim got a beer, and I got a glass of red wine, the house red.  We got those for a decent price for the DC area ($3-$4 a drink).  We then chose to go to the pasta station, this was where we saw why they gave us two cards.  At first, we felt there really wasn’t a need for two cards.  As a result, we used the one card at the bar, and put the other in our pocket to hand back in later.  We even attempted to hand the card back in, but the hostesses knew better.  They insisted we each take a card, and now it was finally making sense.  Luckily, for Tim and I we both did want pasta for dinner.  However, if I wanted to try the pizza and he wanted pasta, we would have been in two different stations.  By giving both people cards, we can both get our meals at the same time without worrying about waiting in line for one person, then waiting in line for the second person or having to hand off the card.  This would take twice as long.  I think there may have been a bright light when I finally understood this and began to welcome the separate card concept.

In the pasta line, we had our choices of wheat pastas or regular pastas, and then an entree that you ordered by name (i.e. ravioli con carne).  I ordered the carbonara – came with a light cream sauce, parmesan, egg, and bacon, using whole wheat pasta.  Tim ordered the scampi e spinaci.  It was very neat to walk up to the counter; grab a napkin, tray, silverware; order your meal; and watch them cook it.  The only issue I found was it was very hard to hear.  You have to tell the chef what it is you want, and the background noise is so loud.  There are multiple chefs at the counter for multiples lines, for multiple stations, and each is trying to communicate with the person they are cooking for.   Actually, you may want to multiply all of that by 2 because most of the chefs are cooking for two people at once.  Then, you add in the clanging of pans, sizzling of meats, pan frying of vegetables….needless to say, I think you get my point that it is busy, and hard to hear.

Despite the noise, the chefs were very friendly and eager to make you what you ordered.  The gentleman cooking for Tim and I seemed as if he was having a wonderful time.  It is just unfortunate, that due to all of the noise and business, I asked to omit the egg from my meal and he still put it in.  Also, I found out that there was onion in my meal, which the menu didn’t state that.  The worse part, was the fact that I had wheat pasta – takes longer to cook than regular pasta.  So, when Tim’s pasta was one, and since he was cooking our meals at the same time, it was assumed my pasta was done when it was all but 1/3 cooked.  I was a little disappointed with my meal. I think it could have been great, I didn’t care too much about the egg or onions, but uncooked pasta is hard to crunch your way through.  Tim’s food was perfectly cooked, the shrimp was juicy, well cleaned, and had great flavor.  He didn’t have any surprise ingredients, and his pasta was perfectly al dente.

In addition to the pasta, they gave us warm, thick slices of Italian bread.  They gave two slices with every entree.  They were at least 1-2 inches thick, crispy on the outside, soft but not too soft- the integrity of the bread bounced back when poked- on the inside with a perfect blend of nooks and crannies from air holes within the bread, and a nice faint buttery flavor.  The tables came equipped with olive oil for dipping, and even fresh herbs on the tables that could be added to the entrees or to the bread if one desired.  The live herbs on the tables were not only great as fresh ingredients for one’s meal, but also made a very pretty centerpiece for the more rustic wooden plank tables.  There were also sections set up as conversation areas with cushioned seats, side tables, and candles that I’m sure offered a more intimate experience than our table setup.

Once we finished our main entrees, we headed over to the dessert table.  I got the most decadent chocolate cake I have ever tasted, Death by Chocolate was its name.  At first, I debated on if I wanted to get it because the sizes they were serving were fairly small.  It really was a sliver of cake.  In the end, it ended up not being small enough.  Not because I didn’t like, the cake was wonderful and if I ate anymore, it would have been living up to its name.  It was a very dense cake full of exceptional chocolate flavor while maintaining a smooth texture. I would highly recommend this chocolate dessert along with a nice red wine.  Tim got the tiramisu della casa, a coffee flavored mascarpone dessert.  He did like his dessert as well, but felt it wasn’t anything to write home about.  You should get the chocolate cake 😉

Although there was a pasta taboo that occurred with my dish and it was fairly noisy, the Vapiano does offer a neat ambiance and a different Italian experience with stations, serving one’s self, cards for keeping track of orders, exceptionally great chocolate cake and breads, fresh herbs on the tables, and pretty good happy hour selection with reduced prices.

I would recommend anyone trying out this restaurant to keep these few things in mind:  1) it will be loud.  Maybe during the day it isn’t as bad, but my experience was 8pm on a Saturday night and it was loud.  2) Get reservations ahead of time if you have a large party.  3) This is not the ideal restaurant for a romantic date.  4) The card concept is a pretty neat idea, although it could lead to trouble.  You really don’t know the total card balance every time you swipe another item onto your card, only the total from that swipe.  You could really be owing a fortune before leaving the restaurant if you aren’t carefully watching how many you times you swipe your card.