Iola Cafe's wood-burning oven turns out fine pizzas in many varieties


Maybe Federal Hill wasn't ready for 30 different kinds of pizza. At least that seems to be the premise behind the opening of the Iola Cafe in the spot where the Al Pacino Cafe used to be.

The most noticeable difference between the two, other than the fine lavender neon lightning bolt in the window, is that the new place offers only 16 varieties. (My new rule, by the way, is never to read -- let alone order -- past No. 5 on any pizzeria's menu. The further along you get, the stranger and less appetizing the combinations are. Pineapple and mozzarella (No. 13 at Iola)? On pizza?

Other than having a more limited number of pizzas, the Iola Cafe is very much like its predecessor, offering pasta, sandwiches and food with a Middle Eastern flavor. What makes it different from your friendly neighborhood pizzeria is its wood-burning oven, which does produce a fine, crisp, smoky crust. I loved the pizza we ordered, a conservative choice of mozzarella, green peppers, pepperoni and sausage. It had the right balance of ingredients, was good to look at and came straight from the oven.

That wood-burning oven also produces the best pita bread I've had. Freshly baked while we waited, it arrived at our table still puffy from the heat. It was so good it overshadowed its hummus dip.

You'll also get pita with chicken schwarma -- marinated, grilled chunks of white meat. You stuff chicken into the pita with tahini sauce and the chopped cucumber, green pepper and tomato garnish. This last, by the way, is the "house salad" promised by the menu. (The waitress said customers always wonder where it is.)

Pasta is a specialty -- basically just spaghetti with various sauces. The pasta of the day, vegetable, had a cooked-down sauce of tomatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, squash and the like, but the flavor was good. All the pastas are inexpensive.

Orzo pasta turned up in the soup of the day, a delicious combination of rich chicken broth, bits of white meat and the tiny oval pasta with an undefinable, exotic seasoning.

The Iola Cafe's food is informal -- until you get to the desserts. For them the owner has gone to the experts: Patisserie Poupon, which specializes in elaborate French cakes. Yes, there's also cappuccino and the like on the menu, so this wouldn't be a bad place to stop just for coffee and dessert.

Iola Cafe

Where: 1019 Light St

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily

Credit cards accepted: MC, V

Features: Pizza, light fare

Non-smoking section: No

Call: (410) 752-2378

Prices: $5.95-$10.50

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