GOOD-LOOKING PIE: Palio's king pizza comes with a generous amount of fresh toppings.
This writer is a true-blue urbanite, dedicated to preserving the core of Little Rock and making it a vibrant place to be again after years of neglect. Folks have made a lot of progress on that front, we're happy to say, and downtown is a place to live again, with a growing collection of great restaurants and some old faves that never left.
That's a really long way of saying that, if we can help it, we don't venture out to far-west Little Rock all that much. The neighborhoods along Chenal Parkway and Cantrell seem to be content to continue stretching toward the sunset like the arm of an amoeba, and we're fine watching that from afar, thanks. Still, there are some good restaurants out that way, and when we head west, it's usually to chow down.
One new place that seems to have a lot of promise is Palio's Pizza Cafe on Rahling Circle. Just across from the Chenal Promenade shopping center, Palio's looks like a trendy local pizza cafe, but it's really the latest link in an 11-restaurant chain that began in the bedroom communities north of Dallas. While it isn't perfect, it's cheaper than most, and a lot better than most pizza you can score in the price range.
Though some might read the words "chain restaurant" and quickly turn the page, there's something to be said for the small chains — the ones far south of giants like Papa John's, but a little north of Mom's Pizza. What a chain of 10 or 11 locations says to us is: The people where it started thought it was good enough that investors were willing to gamble good folding cash on the idea that it could work elsewhere. Think Five Guys Burgers or the growing Whole Hog Barbecue empire. Our mama taught us to trust our neighbors, so with that idea and those sterling examples in mind, we decided to give Palio's a shot.
The decor is cozy, with bright colors, intimate seating, dimmed lighting, a small fireplace and a cafe feel. The menu feels cozy as well: a nice slate of salads, calzones, pastas, desserts and pizzas, but not so many that you end up feeling overwhelmed. Most of that is at just-above-fast-food prices (between $6 and $9), which is welcome in an age of $4-a-gallon gas.
We might try some of their other choices on a return visit, but this go-round was all about the pizza. We were hungry, so from the menu of 18 tasty-sounding choices we picked two. First was the King, their version of the supreme, with pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, mushrooms, black olives, red onions and red, yellow and green bell peppers. Meanwhile, the veggie lover in our midst tried the Mediterranean, which features baby spinach, roma tomatoes, red onions, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, feta and mozzarella. (Small specialty pizza $8.99, medium $11.99, large $13.99, extra large, $17.99.)
The biggest problem with our visit arose after we ordered. We were prepared for a wait, as good pizza takes time. But we wound up waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting. The place didn't seem inordinately full on the Wednesday night we visited, but we wound up waiting over 30 minutes. If we'd been drinking with friends, the time would have likely flown by, but we weren't, and it didn't.
When our pizzas made it to the table, they sure looked great. The first thing to note is the crust. If you're a lover of Chicago style or thick-crust pizza, you might want to go elsewhere. Palio's claim to fame is a thin crust — not crackery-thin, but thinner than most; sweet and a bit chewy, but with a nice crunch.
The toppings were very generous and seemed fresh as could be. What caught our eye on the King, for example, were the thick slices of red, yellow and green bell pepper, which were just crunchy enough to call them al dente. The rest of the toppings on the King went together fine as well, melding with that crust to make a dang fine pizza. The real star of the show, however, turned out to be the Mediterranean (something that surprised this writer quite a bit, given our card-carrying carnivore status). Loaded up with fresh veggies, artichoke hearts and a complicated blend of mozzarella and feta cheese, it was downright delectable — though it won't be swinging us over to the Vegetarian Dark Side anytime soon.
While neither the King nor the Mediterranean was an artisan-grade pizza like you might get from one of the local pizza joints that hold a greasy little space in our heart, they were pretty dang good — not to mention several giant steps above a place like Pizza Hut or Papa John's and at a similar price point. That came into sharp focus when it came time to pay the bill. Where we would have expected to go upwards of $40 for two comparable pizzas elsewhere, we managed to get away from Palio's for a little over $25 (including soft drinks), thanks to a "manager's special" on the back of the menu that lets you buy any large pizza at $13.99, and get the second large with an equal or lesser number of toppings for just $8 bucks.
In short, Palio's is a great deal, especially for a fresh, complex and interesting pizza. Next time we're in the area and jonesin' for a cut-rate pie, we'll definitely keep it in mind.
Palio's Pizza Cafe
3 Rahling Circle
For those who have gone gluten-free, Palio's offers the option of a gluten-free crust. They can also whip up a whole-wheat crust for you if requested.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Beer and wine. All CC accepted. Delivery available in a limited area. Small number of outdoor dining tables.