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Restaurants with ambitious menus always split us right down the middle. On the one hand, we admire any chef who wants to try and shake Little Rock out of the catfish and chicken-fried-steak mindset that still governs the local palate; we've also been burned too many times by joints that have read the latest big-name cookbooks and decided that they can bring that big-city food down here and make it work.
So when we first looked at the menus provided by Piro Brick Oven and Barroom, we were excited and nervous all at once to see if the place could really do all it said it could.
We first tried the Farmer Salad ($10), a mix of fresh greens, pancetta and a poached egg that our server happily allowed us to split for a $1.50 up charge — and although we are generally against dish-splitting fees, this particular buck-and-a-half scored us a second poached egg, which we thought was fair. The eggs in question were poached perfectly, with a firm exterior that gave way to a creamy yolk that spilled out all over the bacon and greens. The pancetta was thick-cut and flavorful. The only downfall to the whole dish was a distinct lack of salt in the dressing and on the egg, and although our server was generous with the freshly ground pepper, there was nary a salt shaker to be found. The result was a salad that must only rise to the level of "almost," because the elements here just needed a slight nudge to become excellent.
This theme would play out again with our second appetizer, the Bone Marrow ($12). The bones themselves were roasted to perfection, and we were happily hollowing out the luscious insides onto crisp, chewy crostini in no time. Again, small elements kept this dish from transcending "good" into "great," namely the lack of a dish of coarse salt, an important element that enhances both taste and texture of bone marrow. The second downfall of the bone marrow dish was a bruised gremolata — the classic Italian condiment made of garlic, lemon zest and parsley — that looked more muddled than chopped. Still, these are small things that can be easily fixed; the cooking was on point.
The arrival of our Prosciutto Pizza ($16) set everything right. Piro tops its pizzas heavier than any Neapolitan-style pizza joint we've ever been to, which means this pie was loaded with high-quality prosciutto and fresh arugula, all resting on a bed of flavorful, chewy mozzarella. Fans of a lot of toppings will love this pizza; fans who prefer their Neapolitan-style pizzas to focus more on the crust might find the whole thing a little fussy and overwhelming. We thought the pizza was fantastic, but the thin crust can't quite hold up to the heavy onslaught of toppings. This might be a case where less becomes more, especially with a rich topping like prosciutto. Still, this was not only a pizza worth trying, it was a pizza worth trying again on a return trip.
Dessert was a tasty tiramisu ($7), and while we felt the price tag was just a touch too high for what we got, the creamy texture, heavy coffee flavor and chocolate sauce garnish were a tasty way to end our meal. Piro also offers Loblolly Ice Cream, a temptation at any time, but we were so full by the end of the tiramisu that we decided we'd come back and try a scoop on another day.
As a matter of fact, there is an entire section of sandwiches that we're itching to return and try, from a portabello mushroom on foccacia ($9) to a fried mortadella sandwich ($12) that features a fried egg and black truffle, a triumvirate of ingredients so alluring we almost skipped the pizza for the sandwich.
The rest of the pizza menu looks equally tantalizing, with outlandish-sounding pizzas like Gorgonzola and fingerling potato ($15) as well as more traditional offerings like a Margherita ($13). It is this balance of the familiar with the novel that really gives Piro an edge over its competitors, because with a menu like this, return trips are required in order to put the place through its paces.
The Piro space itself is quite attractive, making excellent use of a long and relatively narrow building. A bar down the left-hand side is lined with beer and wine taps, and bench seating runs the length of the opposite wall. Normally we're not fans of a long bench on one side of the table with chairs across, but the tables at Piro were spaced well enough so as to not make dinner feel like a crowded ride on the bus. There has clearly been some thought put into the way the dining room looks, and we settled in easily.
Piro is the new kid in town, and while the restaurant is obviously feeling its way forward, there seems to be real skill in the kitchen. A few small tweaks to the seasoning and the way things are dressed and prepped could really vault this restaurant into the heady heights of the Little Rock elite — it isn't far from that now. Pizza is a crowded market in our fair city, but having seen how Piro does it, we don't think it'll have any problem making its mark on the scene.
Piro has embraced the latest trend in Little Rock dining: It offers an excellent selection of draft beers and wines on tap. The restaurant is sporting local brews along with some of the best regional and national brands available in Arkansas, and wine lovers will love the freshness that wine from a tap provides.