Vapiano opened its first fast casual Italian food concept restaurant in Hamburg, Germany, in 2002. Since that time, more than 120 other locations have opened in 26 countries, including two locations here in Chicago – one in Lincoln Park and, most recently, one in the Loop. Housed in the former Carson Pirie Scott building near the Palmer House Hilton, the Chicago Loop location of Vapiano caters to tourists, Loop workers, and theater-goers. Like all Vapiano locations, all food is made-to-order, including its hand tossed pizzas, house-made pastas, and gourmet salads.
Upon entering the restaurant, each diner receives what looks like a credit card that is swiped upon ordering food at either the pizza, pasta, or salad station, or at the coffee bar which also serves desserts. A nice selection of wines are also available. The food is made fresh and to order right in front of each guest and picked up from where it was ordered. At the end of the meal, diners pay for their meals on the way out of the restaurant.
The Chicago Loop location seats 195 guests indoors, with an additional 60 seats on the sidewalk patio. Large windows surround the restaurant, allowing light to flood into the modernly designed space. The communal seating promotes socializing and conversation. A large tree sits in the center of the front dining room, and on each table sits vases of fresh herbs – not only for decoration, but for utilization in the food. Want to add fresh rosemary or basil to your pasta? Just tear off some sprigs and voilá! The Haribo gummy bears in bowls on the counter on the way out pay homage to the restaurant’s German origins.
Recently, my sister and I visited Vapiano for a post-work weekday dinner. After reviewing the menu, we decided to share a salad, two pastas, and a pizza. Our eyes may have been bigger than our stomachs, but we wanted to try a variety of the menu. Because everything is made fresh to order, the entire menu is completely customizable. Want Italian sausage on your spinach pizza? No problem. Want feta instead of goat cheese in your salad? Absolutely. And, best of all, portions are quite generous and nothing on the menu tops $12.95.
First, we ordered the pizza after being cautioned that it would take about fifteen minutes to make. Upon ordering, we swiped our chip card and received a buzzer to alert us of when our pizza was done. We opted for the truffled wild mushroom pizza, with a demi cream sauce, wild mushrooms, radicchio, ricotta, truffle oil, and mozzarella. I am more of a red sauce pizza girl, but who am I to pass up truffles? The pizza really grew on me, especially with the addition of a little crushed red pepper. Next time, however, I plan to try a pizza with tomato sauce.
All of the salads looked delicious, but we settled on the salmon nicoise with potatoes, green beans, red onions, hard boiled egg, and cherry tomatoes. It was delicious! I could definitely have this salad for lunch every day.
We then moved on to the pasta. All pastas are hand-made, and two whole wheat iterations are available. Customers pick the type of pastas they want, and then the preparation, such as primavera, scampi, or carbonara, and toppings such as chicken breast or filet of beef can be added. We elected to go with the arrabbiata, made with tomato sauce, garlic, onion, and chili, tossed with whole wheat fusilli. We also added shrimp. The pasta tasted very fresh, the sauce had a nice spice with the chili, and the shrimp were wonderfully cooked.
The special pasta of the evening, however, a pasta melanzane, was not quite as tasty. The eggplant was diced so small that it was barely recognizable and, while the penne pasta was nicely cooked, the dish overall lacked flavor.
Overall, we enjoyed our meal at Vapiano. The ambiance was relaxing, the food fresh, and the service friendly and accommodating. The restaurant was not busy during our meal, so I wonder how well it can accommodate a busy lunch hour crowd waiting for made-to-order dishes. However, with close to 130 locations, I am sure they have it down to a science, or at least they should.
I will definitely be back to Vapiano for lunch and for a casual weeknight dinner. While better Italian food can be found, especially in a city like Chicago with some fantastic Italian restaurants, the prices and made-to-order freshness of the dishes at Vapiano cannot be beat.
44 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago 60603
Vapiano invited me and a guest to dine with them and my meal was gratis. However, as with all of my Chritiques, the opinions expressed herein are my own.