Gusto Italian Kitchen
Despite some bright spots, 'Gusto' fails to dazzle
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., July 27, 2012
Gusto Italian Kitchen4800 Burnet Rd.; 458-1100; www.gustoitaliankitchen.com
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday, 11am-10:30pm; Saturday, 4-10:30pm; Sunday, 10am-10pm
When Gusto opened earlier this year, crowds were spilling out the door, eager to try the newest offerings from veteran restaurateurs Eddie Bernal and Cameron Lockley. The restaurant's previous incarnation (helmed by the same team), La Sombra, did not generate the kind of consistent business its owners had hoped for – so late last year, La Sombra quietly shuttered its windows, and then re-emerged, phoenix-like, as Gusto Italian Kitchen. The surrounding Rosedale neighborhood was abuzz with excitement. Finally: a family-oriented Italian restaurant within walking distance.
There are a few things I like about Gusto. I love the space. This street-corner restaurant has tremendous appeal with its snug, light-filled dining room, and shaded outside porch. The simple white walls inside are stenciled with stylish images of Italian and American movie icons. There's a pleasant bar with a decent selection of wines by the bottle and the glass, and a happy hour (4-6:30pm) offering half-price appetizers, $2 off pizzas, and 25% off bottles of wine.
In terms of food, let me start by recommending Gusto's pappardelle bolognese ($11.75). The sauce is bright, the meat inside is tender, and the whole ragú comes together in an effortless flavor tango. I am also enamored of the meatball appetizer ($6.75). The ground beef is spiced like sausage, and like the bolognese, the meat melts seamlessly into the surrounding tomato sauce.
But apart from these bright spots, I have been miserably disappointed with this much-anticipated neighborhood destination.
Here are the things I don't like about Gusto: the portions are skin-flinty, the menu is unimaginative, and many dishes are shamefully bland. The fried calamari with garlic aioli ($8), for instance, is greasy. The polenta-flour coating on the squid has almost no flavor, and I suppose it's a good thing that the portion could fit in my cupped hands, because really, I'm not sure a larger portion would be worth consuming. A beet salad with candied walnuts and goat cheese toast ($7.75) is tasty, but the plate is frankly tiny, and I feel as though the kitchen could have made an effort to spiff up the salad with another ingredient. The chicken saltimbocca ($13.75) seems like something one would find on a hotel banquet menu – a simple chicken breast wrapped in prosciutto, served with mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach.
Like the aforementioned chicken, the menu simply lacks spark. I find it hard to get excited about bruschetta topped with pesto and diced tomatoes and basil ($8.25), four-cheese pizza ($11.75), or a panino with tomato, basil, and mozzarella ($8.75). Even the desserts seem halfhearted. The orange olive oil cake ($6.50) is lackluster and dry, and the flourless chocolate torte ($7.50) is about as original as a Xerox copy.
Owners Bernal and Lockley have been incredibly successful with 34th Street Cafe, Santa Rita Cantina, and Blue Star Cafeteria. All three venues have resonated strongly with West Austin locals for their affordable, crowd-pleasing menus. But with Gusto, I fear they have misinterpreted their market research. Yes, there is a hugely underserved market for no-frills Italian food in west Central Austin. But no, we don't want a duplication of Macaroni Grill.