Laurie, Peter Danis' neighborhood pizza spot is showing its age but as popular as ever
In the early '90s, it was tough to find pizzas baked in wood- or coal-fired ovens (where temperatures can reach 700–800 degrees) in Columbus. The technique creates a crust that is crackling on the outside, soft and chewy inside and somewhat smoky from the charring of the dough. It is, to my taste, the best way to cook pizza—fast and furious.
Fast-forward to 2018, and we have Harvest, Bono, Natalie's, GoreMade and several other pizza purveyors turning out excellent fire-kissed pizzas. But in 1991, new parents and practicing lawyers Laurie and Peter Danis bravely gave up their law practices to open Figlio Wood Fired Pizza in Grandview, thus becoming two of the pioneers of blistered pies.
Twenty-seven years later, the Danis' one small restaurant has grown to four, including Figlio restaurants in Upper Arlington and Dayton and the wine-themed Vino Vino connected to Figlio Grandview. Judging by the busy dining rooms at both the original restaurant and the UA location, Figlio's popularity hasn't waned.
Figlio Grandview is a cozy place along Grandview Avenue's restaurant row. It seats about half the patrons of the much larger and less inviting Riverside Drive location in UA. You will find friendly service, if not the most experienced, at both locations. Some of the servers are just kids, but management is present in the dining rooms, checking with patrons and happy to help. Neither location is especially beautiful, but of the two, the UA pizzeria is more plainly decorated.
The menu lists four decent salads and a handful of non-pizza/pasta dishes, among them a composed salad called Autumn Moon ($16), which resembles a Cobb salad with chicken, walnuts, bacon, egg and blue cheese. Sadly, the salads I sampled used too much vinegar in the dressings, which can be a wine killer to the palate.
My favorite pizza from Figlio is one of the simplest—Five Cheese ($13.25). It combines Parmesan, fontina, mozzarella, smoked Gouda and Romano with a touch of tomato. No one cheese dominates, resulting in a totally satisfying pie for cheese lovers. With the excellent crusts produced here, the Margherita pizza ($13.25) would have been just right—light on cheese and strewn with shreds of fragrant fresh basil—were it not for the inexcusable use of one of those tennis balls mistakenly sold as tomatoes. At the very least, the chefs here should have used one of the all-winter varieties like Roma or grape tomatoes. A better choice is the excellent pepperoni and mushroom pizza ($13.25) with a few slivers of red onion added. Also pleasing is the combination of diced white chicken meat, caramelized onions, Parmesan, a bit of tomato and Gorgonzola, known as Peter and Laurie's Favorite ($13.50).
All of the menu's combinations, or your own creations, can be ordered on the pizzeria's standard crust or a more bready flatbread (a gluten-free menu is also available). I prefer the regular crust, but had no argument with flatbread as the base for a tasty combination of butternut squash, prosciutto, arugula, cherry tomatoes, roasted garlic, red onions, walnut and fontina cheese ($13.75). It sounded like too many ingredients, but the disparate elements worked well together, and the flatbread offered a solid foundation.
Where Figlio runs into trouble is with its pasta dishes. Many of the recipes (and the execution of them) are dated. I suppose in 1991, Chicken Diablo ($15.50), a penne pasta dish with grilled chicken, spinach and tomatoes in a spicy cream sauce, was new and interesting. But Italian cooking hereabouts has evolved greatly since then. By today's standards, this dish suffers from an excess of a sauce that's too rich, obscuring the flavors of the chicken, pasta and vegetables. Similar problems exist with Lemon Chicken in Parmesan Cream ($14.95), in which on my visit, the linguine was overcooked and neither the mushrooms nor the chicken, or the spinach, stood out. Sometimes, a rich sauce can enhance flavors—as in the crab ravioli ($19). Here, a Parmesan-enhanced tomato cream sauce tops decently made pasta pillows (hefty, but not too heavy)with a fair amount of sweet crabmeat inside—nicely accompanied by shrimp and bits of bright red bell pepper.
But even though many recipes evolve, some classics stand the test of time, as in “Old School” Spaghetti and Meatballs ($15.25). The meatballs are a homey combination of veal and pork with Parmesan, garlic, onions and just enough breadcrumbs to make them tender. While the pasta again was cooked a bit too long, the thin noodles in a hearty tomato sauce with plenty of modestly sized meatballs, all showered with salty Romano cheese, was most satisfying. Not so with Linguine Bolognese ($14.50). This didn't taste like a true, long-simmered, meat-based Bolognese sauce, but just ground beef and Italian-style sausage in a rather sweet tomato sauce, and, once again, the kitchen cooked the pasta beyond al dente.
For dessert, there is the obligatory tiramisu ($6.50) and a thing called French Quarter Ice Cream Torte ($6.75) with ice cream, crushed Heath bars and chocolate sauce on an Oreo crust (think Ohio State Fair food, but sweeter). There was also a rather bland chocolate mousse ($6.25). Like some of the pastas, this dessert struck me as something that might have excited Columbus palates in the '90s, but with all of the great dark chocolates around, it now falls flat. The best dessert was the crème brûlée, a bit of raspberry puree at the bottom adding a bright note to the soothing vanilla custard with a crackly sugar crust ($6.25).
While Vino Vino has quite a decent and reasonably priced wine list (from which you may order at the Figlio Grandview location), the wine list in UA is quite small. Although the prices are fine, there are only a handful of bottles to choose from and only a few of them Italian.
Figlio is a friendly neighborhood restaurant with a solid base to work from—years of experience, regular customers, great locations, wood-fired ovens and capable management. But competition in the Italian and wood-fired pizza categories have heated up since Figlio first opened in 1991. To make the place truly shine again, the menu and cooking techniques need a reboot.