Light eats, with pleasing zing

COLUMBIA, Mo 12/23/14 (Review) -- Good friends invited my wife and I to Umbria, one of Columbia's newer entries in a crowded dining scene, and the city's newest Italian restaurant. 

Italian food, in my dining experience, is easy to screw up.  Too heavy; too cheesy; too creamy; too something -- it seems like many chefs believe more is better in this carbohydrate-rich environment.   But with all the breads and noodles, less is more in the best Italian restaurants and Umbria did not disappoint

Named for the Umbria region of central Italy where old and modern are said to converge, Umbria in Columbia offers a simple and price-conscious selection of salads, soups, pasta, open-face sandwich-style entrees known as panino and full entrees.  

Expecting the usual gush of heavy sauces and visions of noodles piled over breaded veal, I was immediately taken with how light everything looked and confused by all the great choices.   Umbria advertises its "rustic" flare, which in this case means organic, farm-grown, moderately-priced, yet filling.  The salads -- insalata -- range from $7-11; the pasta dishes, $14-16; soups (zuppa) $5; panino $9-10; and entrees from $15 to $24 for the "Umbrian filet", a truffle-potato or squash mix. 

Among the entrees, the Tonno Con Patate caught my eye, a substantial but delicately arranged alabacore tuna surrounded by tomatoes, olives, fresh herbs, and a light lemon basil oil. 

Up the menu a ways, I reviewed the four Paninos -- in pork, beef, chicken, and tuna varieties.  The Porchetta Panino lays slow-roasted pork across an artisan bread garnished with grain mustard, rosemary jus, and a lightly-braised chard. The Manzo and Con Tonno paninos -- beef and tuna, respectively -- use varying combinations of peppers and olives, capers, basil aioli, and giardiniera for added zing, across ciabatta and sourdough breads. 

I settled on the Chicken Carciofo, a melt-in-your mouth combination of chicken breast, artichokes, roasted peppers, and farmers cheese open-faced on grilled sourdough, all prepared so that everything was just right.  The meat cut like butter, and the bread stayed crisp -- never soggy -- as we made our way through several months of conversational catching up. 

Others in our group ordered across the menu, and I made sure to sample the dishes when they made the rounds of "you HAVE to try this!"  "You MUST taste that!" 

Despite its heavy-sounding ingredients -- potato dumplings in four cheeses -- pecorino, gruyere, gorgonzola, and farmhouse -- the Gnocchi Quattro Fromaggio was magnifique!   A light basil oil mixed with a taste sensation I had never tried -- a tomato jam (I normally hate tomatoes, but not this time).   Admittedly unsophisticated as foodies go, I always thought of jams coming from berries and sweet fruits.   But Umbria's tomato jam changed my perspective. 

I was also fortunate enough to try the Costola Breve, a braised short rib with red wine, root veggies, lentils, and a balsamic syrup; and a salad, the Prosciutto e Prugna, an amazing combination of grilled plums, toasted pine nuts, gorgonzola cheese, baby arugula, and prosciutto -- a thinly-sliced ham -- sprinkled with a vinaigrette dressing made with chianti wine

Our table had wine, but this designated driver in my duo settled for water. 

The service was nearly as terrific as the food, with fast seating despite a full house and attentive wait staff throughout our slow-food evening.   And of course, the best sign in the restaurant business that your guests like your food -- dare I say the simplest sign of all -- clean plates all around, with raves from our table of six. 

"That was just excellent," I heard my wife telling our friends, who selected Umbria so we could all try it out for the first time.       

Umbria is open for lunch and dinner at 904 Elm Street in downtown Columbia

-- Mike Martin