In a year of bad restaurant ideas done surprisingly well, Vapiano is a mediocre idea done disastrously. Each diner here gets an electronic card that tracks your order from stations for pizza, pasta, or drinks. They make all the pizza dough and pasta fresh each day, but also precook the latter, which defeats the point. The only thing worse than working your way through a long line and watching a bored line cook sort of stir-fry your pasta in a wok is having the beeper go off for the pizza you ordered when you finally got to the front of that line. Now you have a big plate in one hand, and pretty soon another one in the other. With luck, someone is getting you a nice cold beer in the bar/dessert line and a third teammate is grabbing a table.
Sounds like a college dining hall minutes away from an all-out food fight? It's just another Saturday night at Vapiano, a German franchise company's idea of a fun Italian restaurant plunked down into the Boston theater district's upscale chain gulch. I would recommend this restaurant to tourists on a budget, or anyone visiting whose natural time zone has them hungry at mid afternoon. For everyone else, there's real Italian food in the North End, quality fast cheap food two blocks away in Chinatown, and numerous quality dining spots within a few hundred yards.
To be fair, it's mainly the pasta stations that don't function. (And the beer lines need cleaning; and the potted herbs on the tables have white flies; and the death by chocolate dessert ($5.25) is more like life without parole eating frosting.) The pizza/calzone area isn't any slower than a regular pizza parlor, plus the pizza is pretty good, judging by my caprese ($11.95), a thin-crust pie with fresh mozzarella and five leaves of fresh basil. The bar/dessert station functions even at peak times because the bartenders are more service oriented. And the desserts are pre-packaged.
Turning pasta into fast food, however, is worse that it sounds. And to multiply the misery, you stand and watch your designated line cook throw some oil and garlic into a wok, then — for my filetto di manzo ($12.95) — a four-ounce chunk of steak, then sauce, then mushrooms, then pinot grigio (which does get enough time to cook off the alcohol), and zucchini. Meanwhile, a plastic box of that premade, precooked pasta goes into a timed boiling-water bath (like a fry machine, but with water), comes up, and goes into the wok.
What then gets poured into a triangular bowl is edible, cooked pasta, but it has neither the al dente quality of correctly made dried pasta, nor the slight bite and sauce-absorbing qualities of "real" fresh pasta. The tagliatelle I picked was a wide enough shape to have a little chew, but Barbara Lynch won't be losing any sleep about it. The linguine on an order of salmon and dill pasta ($12.95) was mediocre, and the cream sauce took on little flavor from the dill or the chunks of salmon.