Restaurant Review: Basic Instincts

While one of the characteristics of umami is subtlety, Umami Mia Pizzeria is anything but

Umami Mia Pizzeria CLOSED

1500 Barton Springs Rd., 512/428-5175,
Basic Instincts
Photos by John Anderson

Umami Mia Pizzeria

1500 Barton Springs Rd., 512/428-5175
Sun.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm
Basic Instincts

There's a lot going on at Umami Mia, a transit-themed pizza joint seeking to educate Austin palates on the joy of umami, the "fifth taste." Oh, and there's the live music and the "farm-to-pizza" ethos, too. Anyone trying to juggle so many big ideas is bound to drop a ball or two every now and again, and Umami Mia is no exception to this inevitability.

Basic Instincts

Under the leadership of former Soleil chef George Thomas, the kitchen cranks out standard Italian-American fare, starting with an unsurprising appetizer menu. The Crispy Mozzarella ($8.95) comprises diminutive triangles of breaded cheese, served with the Umami marinara sauce and a side of house-made pickles. The cheese is satisfactory in that it triggers the carbs-and-fat pleasure centers, but the excellent pickles embody the restaurant's emphasis on the fifth basic taste (along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). The Fresh Mozzarella starter ($9.95) is beautifully composed, garnished with basil and chioggia beets, but the cheese itself is buried in a potpourri of tomatoes; while this aligns with the promise of "umami bombs," it would have made more sense to showcase the cheese itself.

The salads, sandwiches, and pasta leave much to be desired. The romaine salad ($4.95/$9.95) was a bowlful of rusty romaine hearts; because there was apparently no other romaine lettuce in the kitchen, our waiter substituted it with a small house salad that was clearly composed of bagged salad mix. Fortunately, the accompanying white soy bacon vinaigrette elevated an otherwise pedestrian salad. The meatball sandwich ($8.95) was similarly unremarkable, with bland, lukewarm meatballs stuffed into a soggy hoagie roll studded with sesame seeds. From the pasta menu, the carbonara ($11.95) was heavy and greasy, weighed down by a cream sauce rather than letting the delicate featheriness of egg coat the linguine, and there was no trace of the dish's signature black pepper.

Basic Instincts

There are, however, bright spots on the menu, particularly the Umami pizzas, which make the most sense for the concept. Our favorite was the Prosciutto & Mission Fig ($11.95/$16.95), the sweetness of the dried fig mingling beautifully with the tang of Gorgonzola and the salt of the prosciutto. I recommend sticking to the smaller 10-inch size, as the smaller pizzas are tidier and less prone to accumulations of grease, such as with our 16-inch classic pepperoni pizza ($10.95/$15.95).

I was also impressed by Umami Mia's drink menu, especially the inventive cocktails and local beers, which include Austin Beerworks' Pearl-Snap Pils and (512) Brewing Company's (512) IPA. On the specialty drinks side, the Tuscan Sipper ($9) offers an Italian play on the mojito with Tito's vodka, St. Germain, and grapefruit juice. The blackberry caipirinha ($8) was so delicious I had to order two to verify my initial assessment.

All that said, Umami Mia prides itself on its "farm-to-pizza" mandate, with dry-erase boards proclaiming ingredients from Vital Farms, Johnson's Backyard Garden, and "local bakery." There is a concerted effort on the restaurant's part to situate itself as a purveyor of local ingredients, but that doesn't really bear itself out in the quality of the food. While it is evident that Umami restaurateurs Mark Turner and Rick Engel (both of Austin Java and Little Woodrow's), along with Adam Weisberg (Zen, Lucky Robot) are making an effort in this regard, the big ideas don't quite make it to the plate.

The biggest conceptual error, though, is with the space. What was once so cozy in its incarnation as Romeo's is now meant to evoke the Rome metro, complete with a subway motif running through the decor. Alas, the flaws in that design concept are laid bare when 20 unsupervised elementary-school-aged children populate the largest dining area. In that situation, the noise level is so oppressive that diners might actually prefer the roar of an underground train. Perhaps it's a different story on the patio, but perhaps not, given the stage for live music, the televisions perma-tuned to sporting events, and the centrally located bar.

While it's great that there are local restaurateurs who feel like they have a responsibility to situate themselves within a bigger picture of sustainability and community, the folks at Umami Mia have bitten off more than they can chew. Why not focus on one or two big concepts – one of them being making high-quality, consistently delicious food – and let the rest sort itself out within other contexts? That seems to be a greater responsibility than bombing Austin's palates with the not-so-elusive fifth taste.

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George Thomas, Mark Turner, Rick Engel, Adam Weisberg, pizza, Romeo's

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