Pork to posh 

The former north side Slayton's morphs into a mighty respectable and surprisingly innovative Italian outfit

Randy Price has done it again ... or, more accurately, redone it. The CEO of Rocky Mountain Restaurant Group, which has brought us Sonterra Grill and Slayton's Tejon Street Grill downtown as well as the Salsa Bravas in Briargate and Rockrimmon, has, after much thought, completely flipped the script on the original Slayton's Barbeque off Rockrimmon. Enter Piazza Wine Bar and Pizzeria.

General manager Mike Anderson says Piazza aims to serve "fresh, fresh, fresh" ingredients, good food and a warm, neighborhood atmosphere. And it's succeeding.

The moment you walk into the small eatery, the staff races to greet you. Taylor, our witty and charming server, seemed eager to talk about the menu concept and wine pairings. In aiming to take the mystery out of Italian wines, Piazza ventures as far as to offer phonetic spellings (think: pee-noh-GREE-jeo) for some varietals. A little much for a seasoned foodie, but perhaps charming for a newbie.

On what first appears to be a standard Italian menu of appetizers, stone-baked pizzas, pastas and salads, you'll find surprises. Take, for instance, the Bruschetta plate ($6), in which the traditional basil pesto and tomato welcome interesting and delicious mascarpone cream with pistachios, all drizzled with balsamic. Or our favorite dish — the crisp, nutty and creamy eggplant tower appetizer ($8) of fried eggplant discs layered with roasted peppers, mozzarella and pine nuts, then topped with chopped wild mushrooms and served over an excellent tomato pomodoro sauce.

Moving to the entrées, flatbread pizzas highlight the restaurant's made-from-scratch component: When asked about the size, Taylor quipped, "It depends on who's tossing them." Our Margherita ($9) arrived at roughly 12 inches with a sauce made from imported San Marzano tomatoes, topped with sliced tomatoes, house-made mozzarella, basil and, for added kick, arugula leaves. It, like the wild mushroom with seasonal fungi and roasted garlic (also $9), tasted as good as it sounded, especially over the crunch-crisp dough.

Daily specials, too, prove stellar. A plate of large ravioli stuffed with sausage and ricotta ($11) brought a pleasant, tangy spice. Rich tortellini with prosciutto and peas ($12) made for an excellent Alfredo rendition.

All the colorful food is generally enhanced by the very tasteful, yet muted, tones of the restaurant. Against gorgeous multi-colored wood plank walls with exposed brick, pistachio-colored booths sit bearing wine glasses and linen-wrapped utensils. Lighting at dinner, however, can be an issue: Overly bright tract installations caused an uncomfortable glare on our polished table, as well as an annoying shadow any time our server or a guest walked by. Plus, nobody likes halo-hair.

Anderson says he plans to address the issue, and adds that two-month-old Piazza is still tweaking other items, like the Antipasti plate ($10) of cured meat, artisan cheeses and marinated vegetables. Though likeable, it appeared sans the roasted peppers and artichokes promised by the Web site.

Minor issues aside, Piazza appears to be hitting the right notes — especially at dessert, with outstanding and unique lemon and almond tortes ($8) FedExed in from a 160-year-old bakery in Italy. A drunken dome of tiramisu ($6) with chocolate shavings also provides a nice ending to a meal.

With nothing more than $15, Piazza is positioning itself to fit nicely into the area as an elegant but affordable hangout. Consider this pork-to-pizza overhaul wise and well-played.



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