Don't let La Piazza's Raleigh mailing address fool you. The restaurant is on the far side of Garner, just over the Johnston County line - or, as owner Anthony Scafidi puts it, "as far as you can be from Raleigh and still be Raleigh."
Even so, it's just a 20-minute drive down Interstate 40 from the Beltline, and when you get there you'll swear you've magically been transported even farther from Raleigh. All the way to New York.
The feeling starts the moment you walk in the door and are warmly greeted by Scafidi's Brooklyn-accented baritone. He'll lead you to a table in the cozy dining room with an electric fireplace on one side, a mural of a sunny Italian plaza on the other, and a view through an arched doorway into an even cozier bar in the back. Sinatra will be crooning in the background. As likely as not, Scafidi (who owns the restaurant with his parents, Sicilian natives Paul and Antonina Scafidi and his cousin, Carlo Finazzi) will be wearing a Yankees baseball jersey.
La Piazza's menu lives up to the setting, covering the Italian-American repertoire from baked ziti to eggplant parmigiana. Portions are true to family-style tradition, too. Count on taking home tomorrow's lunch.
The hot antipasto platter serves up a generous sampling of eggplant rollatini, shrimp scampi, mussels and crunchy fried calamari with an exceptionally smooth, bright marinara sauce. Paired with the addictive house-baked bread that's brought to your table still warm from the oven, it's a feast for two - or more, depending on your appetite.
Come to think of it, if you hope to do your entree justice, you might consider ordering just the calamari or the plump, ricotta-stuffed rollatini. Or the excellent stuffed mushrooms, nestled in a translucent chicken-based mushroom broth that's richly redolent of the earth.
Anthony Scafidi is justifiably proud of his restaurant's veal dishes, the meat pounded into thin, tender submission and offered in classic variations from Marsala to saltimbocca. There's also veal Sorrentino, a layered construction of veal (or chicken breast, if you prefer), ribbon-thin slices of eggplant, prosciutto and mozzarella. Like all entrees, it's served with a side of pasta.
When it comes to saucing the pasta, you won't go wrong with either the silky marinara or the rustically beefy meat sauce that's another point of pride. "We buy our meat from a local butcher, and we believe a meat sauce should have a lot of meat in it," Scafidi says.
That goes for the lasagna, too, a hefty slab of comfort delivered in layers of classically seasoned ground beef, sauce, ricotta and wavy noodles. When you think of lasagna, chances are this is the version you're picturing.
La Piazza's brick oven turns out a more-than-respectable New York-style pizza, with a modest but varied assortment of topping options ranging from meat lover's to white to the colorful patchwork of red sauce, fresh mozzarella and chiffonade basil that tops the Margherita. According to the menu, pizzas are "personal size." Presumably they're intended for a person with a very large appetite.
Missteps in the kitchen and dining room are infrequent. Mussels are sometimes less than ideally plump, and pasta is not always thoroughly drained. Your friendly and, for the most part, attentive server may on occasion get an order wrong, but when you point out the error, it's quickly and cheerfully corrected.
For all its traditional Italian-American pedigree, La Piazza has a few surprises up its sleeves. Gnocchi bolognese is an Old World-inspired dish, as is the salmon livornese that's sometimes offered as a nightly special. Linguine brezza di mare's lofty ambitions are realized in a medley of shellfish over pasta in your choice of red or white clam sauce. Baked ziti is offered in the familiar version, as well as a Sicilian rendition amped up with eggplant.
La Piazza's Sicilian heritage is woven into the decor, too. The eye-catching mural in the dining room is of the piazza in Carini, Antonina Scafidi's hometown on the Mediterranean island. Turns out that 20-minute drive down I-40 can take you even farther away than New York