Palio's Pizza Cafe has to be the "un-chainiest" restaurant chain out there. There are 13 branches across Dallas-Fort Worth, yet each feels like an independently owned place. Credit goes to the hands-on attention of founder Harry Awad, who opened the first branch in 2002 in Highland Village. He subsequently partnered with restaurant veterans Johnny Fooshee and Tom Schott, and they've expanded across the northern suburbs of Dallas and Tarrant counties. But Awad's dedication to quality and customer service filters down to each branch.
He was involved firsthand with this branch in Keller, which opened three months ago. He designed the store's layout, chose the colors and decorations, and worked with the contractor to transform what was an empty location in a rather sad and lonely strip center. That's a distant memory now.
As often happens with Palio's, the Keller store has become a lively destination for families and residents in the nearby neighborhood, who are drawn to its carefully prepared food and easygoing atmosphere.
The interior is inviting, with blues and purples, roomy booths, and warm, not-too-bright lighting. The room has a TV or two but feels like your living room, not a sports bar.
Pizza is the thing to get, but the pastas, sandwiches and salads were good, too. Pizzas range from $8.99 for a small to $17.99 for an extra-large. Pastas are $8.99, salads are $3.49 to $5.99, and sandwiches are all $5.99. We split a small pizza, pasta and salad and got out for less than $30, with leftovers for the next day.
The pizza may not be at the Neapolitan level served at top-ranked places such as Il Cane Rosso in Dallas, but it's a very good thin-crust version that far outshines your typical suburban spot.
The King is the gluttonous choice, topped with pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, mushrooms, olives, onions and bell peppers. But there are also interesting options for vegetarians, and the menu even offers a crust made with whole wheat.
The Mediterranean was excellent, with sweet tomato sauce, leaves of baby spinach, Roma tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and both feta and mozzarella cheese. The artichoke hearts were preserved, but all of the other vegetables were fresh, and that made a big difference. They were cut thickly so that they retained their flavor and body.
The crust was very good -- thin, but not one of those cracker crusts. It had the crisp bottom that many prefer, but it wasn't overly thick or bready. The toppings were spread out nearly to the rim so there wasn't much blank crust, and that part had been brushed with oil so it was golden and toasty.
As for entrees, blackened chicken alfredo had a generous tangle of noodles in a creamy white sauce, just enough to keep the pasta moist but not gloppy. It was topped by a half-breast of chicken with darkened edges and an extremely tender and juicy center. Served on the side: an order of cheese-topped garlic bread.
The only thing we didn't love was the raspberry dressing on the nutty Hawaiian salad, which seemed a little sweet. But we appreciated the effort to do a salad with interesting ingredients. Romaine lettuce was topped with chopped cashews, dried cranberries, sun-dried tomatoes and pineapple chunks that obviously came from a can.
You order at the counter and get a number; a server brings your food once it's ready. Drinks and utensils are self-serve, but it's the real thing, none of that cheap disposable stuff. Palio's is BYOB, but its approach is extremely accommodating. In addition to self-serve corkscrews, there's a rack with better-than-average wineglasses to which you can help yourself. It feels like home, only better.