When it comes to fast-casual pizza, the playing field is especially crowded. As brands try to gain market share by distinguishing themselves from the pack, one new concept has a special differentiator encoded in its DNA.
Pizza Romana, which opened in the La Brea neighborhood of Los Angeles last summer, might be a fast casual, but its wine list could easily eclipse many a fine-dining establishment. The bottle list numbers above 30 varieties of red, white, and sparkling wines from Italy, and the restaurant also offers a rotating selection of about a dozen wines by the glass. In fact an Italian sommelier was astounded by the fast casual’s collection, which he said surpassed the variety seen at casual-dining trattorias in Italy.
The driving force behind such a robust wine program is Pizza Romano founder Alex Palermo, who was born in Italy and grew up in Wisconsin. From the start, he wanted the concept to be a combination of an exceptional product and a wonderful experience. In Los Angeles, he says, restaurants tend to skew to either experiential and pricey or mundane and budget-friendly.
“I really wanted to be unique in establishing the best all-Italian wine menu for a pizzeria that has ever been done,” Palermo says. “There’s so much great value in Italian wines for the quality of product you’re getting that I just wanted to put together a list that represented and kind of matched the value we’re giving for the quality of food, too.”
He adds that a wine he sells for $32 could retail for $60 in a full-service restaurant. Beyond offering a more accessible price point, Palermo also wants to shift the way customers think about wine. Instead of thinking of it as a beverage enjoyed only on special occasions or the weekends, Palermo hopes to inject a little bit of Italian mentality.
“In Italy you’d drink wine at lunch, and you’d drink it at dinner. It’s not a luxury; it’s the right of the meal,” he says.
Americans might not be accustomed to a lunchtime glass of wine, but so far, Palermo says he’s seen guests take advantage of the option—especially on Fridays.
Pizza Romano’s passion for viticulture might attract a loyal customer base, but it also makes the training process more involved. Not only must staff be familiar with the various foods and wines, but they must also be able to recommend pairings or make varietal suggestions based on other wines the guests might like. But in a foodie city like Los Angeles, Palermo says it’s not too difficult to find eager and willing learners.
“We look for people that first and foremost have an interest in wines and food,” Palermo says. “It does make it more difficult, but at the same time, we find ourselves in Los Angeles where there are a lot of people who really want to learn this kind of stuff. It goes beyond working in a restaurant; it’s a life lesson.”
That same curiosity also extends to its customers. Palermo points to a recent example wherein a middle-aged couple brought their own wine to Pizza Romana because the corkage fee was so low. Palermo let them sample one of his wines and the couple ended up ordering it off the list instead opening their own. They also said it would be the last time they arrived with their own bottle.
Of course, a good portion of Pizza Romana’s allure also rests in its food. The menu includes both traditional Italian and more American varieties of pizza with an option for guests to build their own as well. Beyond pizza a “pizza panino” sandwiches, the fast casual also peddles sides like lasagna, salumi e formaggi plate, and spicy broccolini.
Palermo plans to open a second location in Los Angeles later this year. He says the team will also make a trip to the Northern Virginia and D.C. area in the summer to explore the possibility of East Coast expansion.
In the meantime, he’s spreading his passion for the grape with monthly tastings focused around a single region in Italy. If customers are interested in exploring even further, he’d like to offer tastings that feature wines from the same grapes but different regions.
“We’d like to show how the different terroirs affect the grape,” Palermo says. “Even though those regions are a stone’s throw away from each other, … the same grape in different regions tastes different.”
By Nicole Duncan