By Judith Salkin

Late last week I got a last minute invitation from a friend to meet at Piero’s PizzaVino on El Paseo for an impromptu girls’ night out. But a pizza place?

Having grown up on the East Coast, most of my friends know that I am not particularly fond of what passes for pizza here in California.

A too thick, doughy, half-baked round of overly yeasty glop that passes for a crust and piled with too much sauce and toppings, and not enough imagination is not what I want to eat.

So it was with a bit of reserve that I said yes to the invite. And I’m glad I did. From the starters to the salad, the pizza (although my friend ordered the pan-seared salmon, but we’ll get to that later) and finally, the desserts, dinner at Piero’s PizzaVino was treat.

It’s hard to call this trattoria just a pizza place since the menu also offers a good selection of appetizers (order three or four and a large salad to share for a light dinner with friends), salads, soups, entrees and desserts, including what my friend said is the best tiramisu she’s had here in the Coachella Valley.

It’s owned by Piero Pierattoni, who also owns the upscale Ristorante Mama Gina which is almost directly across the street and allows him to keep an eye on both places. The atmosphere is cool and casual, with a bar as you enter the restaurant, a dining room with booths that offer some privacy and a patio that fronts onto El Paseo where diners can watch the movement on the street and, especially at this time of year, enjoy the balmy desert weather.

While it seems fairly intimate, the restaurant has become popular enough to require Pierattoni to expand. He recently purchased the former nail salon behind the restaurant that will soon open as a back patio/dining area. Unlike some El Paseo eateries where you either take your chances finding space on the street or pay for valet parking, PizzaVino has free parking behind the restaurant, which is a gift for diners.

Dining at a small table in a corner of the patio was pleasant, and the wait staff were attentive, accommodating and knew the menu and wine list well enough to help us make informed decisions about our dining choices.

I didn’t try any of the house signature drinks on this trip, but I was nicely surprised at the selections on the beer and wine list. The bar offers Italian Moretti beer on tap and a good selection of bottled ales, ciders and even Murphy’s Irish Stout.

The wine list offers wines from California, New Zealand, Argentina and Italy, with about 80 percent of the selections available by the glass and ranging in price from $5.50 for an acceptable glass of CK Mondavi Merlot to $13 for the Paul Hobb Malbec Felino from Argentina that is worth every cent of the price.

As we finally got down to ordering we dipped into the warm Italian bread heated in parchment and served with a peppery olive oil and one flavored with fresh garlic, along with sweet Balsamic vinegar – we went whole hog, so to speak, going for the succulently fried baby zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta and drizzled with raw honey for a sweet, salty bite that quite literally melted in your mouth; the fried baby artichokes with goat cheese rounds and a light marinara dipping sauce (although the lemon-garlic aioli would be quite nice, too); and fried calamari with Diavola sauce. When the calamari came out a bit chewy, it was replaced with a fresh plate that was more to my friend’s tooth.

Proving that our eyes weren’t totally bigger than our stomachs, we refrained from adding the Frigitelli, oven roasted Italian peppers, beets carpaccio with mozzarella bocconcini, basil and balsamic reduction or Burrata cheese that we were considering.

We opted for the Tuscan kale salad with sweet baby kale, roasted garlic, grated Pecorino Toscano cheese, pine nuts, roasted bread crumbs and lightly drizzled with a lemon vinaigrette (her) and the Panzanella salad, a rustic country bread salad with yellow and red grape tomatoes, cucumber slices, red onion, basil, mozzarella and romaine lettuce dressed with a lemony balsamic vinaigrette (me).

Fairly common in the Italian countryside, these salads aren’t often found on American menus. The chunks of bread in the panzanella offer a satisfying crunch while the vinaigrette wakes the mouth up for what’s to come. And the baby kale salad is the kind of healthy food you can forget is good for you. Lots of fiber and vitamins, without the bitterness you sometimes get with mature kale. Both were gone before we realized we’d consumed our entire portions.

When it came to entrees, the pizza choices were intriguing and I had to try one. While you can go for the traditional Margherita or Napolitana red-sauced pies, it’s here that Pierattoni takes a sharp left turn to imaginative with a selection of white or red pies.

It was a toss-up between two whites – the Gorgonzola with caramelized apple, Gorgonzola cheese and rapini and the Alba, with house-made mozzarella, sautéed button mushrooms, truffle paste and a lightly fried egg.

I went with the Alba, a pizza that even our server admitted is often misunderstood. Europeans don’t indulge in eggs as mostly a breakfast food. Instead eggs can be used as a garnish with the runny yolks providing a lovely creaminess to the dishes that they top.

The Alba didn’t disappoint. Cooked in the imported Italian brick oven than can reach temperatures of 850 to 900 degrees, the pies cook in under two minutes. The crust was a thin, beautifully crispy, slightly smoky and seemingly slightly burnt around the edges, a thing of beauty. A touch peppery, but so yummy.

The salmon was served on a bed of rapini and olive oil mashed potatoes and had a perfect sear on the meat. While it’s easy to over- or under-cook pan seared fish, this piece was a light salmon color and fork flaky, with a caramel color that increased its eye-appeal.

While we were certainly pleasantly stuffed by then (neither of us could finish our entrees), we just had to go for dessert. One tiramisu and a crème brulee did the trick to finish off the meal.

While I’m usually not a tiramisu fan, this one was light and fluffy, creamy without being cloying and amazingly, the lady finger sponge cake wasn’t soggy. The burnt sugar top of the crème brulee cracked to reveal a vanilla custard that was worth savoring every spoonful. And yes, most of our dessert went home, too, to be enjoyed later.

I’m looking forward to returning to Piero’s PizzaVino to delve into other choices on all parts of the menu and figuring that it’s going to take me at least a dozen delicious visits to figure out which dish is really my favorite, although I’m off to a pretty good start.

Piero’s PizzaVino, 73722 El Paseo, Palm Desert
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily; late night happy hour, 9-10:30 p.m.
Information, reservations: (760) 568-2525; ppizzavino.com

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