- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Uchi: In the Austin restaurant world, there is no more vaunted name.
Chef Tyson Cole and his business and culinary partners irrevocably altered the Austin fine dining scene and what we could expect from local sushi when the restaurant opened in 2003. Within a few years, Uchi claimed a permanent spot in the pantheon of Austin’s great dining establishments.
So, when people heard the team behind Uchi was opening St. Philip Pizza Parlor and Bakeshop, speculation and excitement mounted. What would it look like? Would they somehow wed technique from Uchi with Italian traditions? Should all other pizza places quake in fear? It was like hearing Martin Scorsese had another feature in the works.
The Uchi team regulated expectations when it announced that St. Philip would be a family-friendly restaurant that delivered classics and culinary nostalgia with a slight twist. Excellence was certainly the aim, but a masterpiece along the lines of Uchi or Uchiko didn’t seem to be the target.
Diners hoping for “Goodfellas” might have to be content with “Hugo.”
Despite getting star billing on the marquee, the pizzas at St. Philip generally take a back seat to the character actors filling out the cast. The pizza toppings speak to quality and freshness, but they’re supported by a lackluster crust.
The pizzas at the restaurant housed in the old Cannoli Joe’s space in a complex that includes Spa by Milk + Honey and Stouthaus Coffee Pub wander the space between New York and Italian style. The edges have a uniform golden hue, never bubbled or charred like you would find in Neapolitan, and the slices have a toaster-oven stiffness that prevents the easy fold you might apply to a New York slice.
The tawny, bland crust didn’t completely detract from a beautiful roasted veggie pizza ($13.50) scattered with sweet corn, fennel rings, a confetti of mint, parsley and basil, and circles of zucchini and squash curled from the heat. Textured pools of almond romesco and the faint smoke of Idiazabal cheese gave a Spanish accent to the picturesque pie.
Zippy tomato sauce coated a NYC pie ($11) spotted with pliant pepperoni and also appeared on a flavorful pizza scattered with the savory licorice tingle of fennel sausage ($15), the sweetness of slippery piquillo peppers, shaved red onion, shreds of floral basil and a gooey mozzarella blend.
The bleached wood and soft whites of the restaurant echo the colors of dough and rolling pins and give a gentle coastal feel to the space. New England gets a nod with the restaurant’s namesake pie: the salty funk of chopped clams emanated from beneath a tight blanket of ricotta dotted with pungent garlic and sweet bacon jam on the St. Philip ($18).
The pizzas are suitable for two with the aid of side dishes, a salad, or a selection from the “plates” section. The golden cauliflower ($5) is one of the best vegetable dishes I’ve had in months. Maybe St. Philip can do for this cruciferous vegetable what Uchiko did for the once-lowly Brussels sprout. Here the knobby cauliflower is crisped and relaxed by a flash fry, brightened with herbed yogurt, sweetened by golden raisins and given crunch from pine nuts.
A roasted carrot and avocado salad ($9) lacked plate appeal but delighted in its simplicity, with a tangle of sunflower sprouts and crumbles of pumpkin seed granola giving snap and pop to a salad of roasted carrots and peppered slices of avocado.
The “plates” section, featuring appetizer-size dishes good for sharing, skips from Italian to American comfort food with mixed results. Ricotta dumplings ($13.50), which arrived strewn with earthy wild mushrooms and brittle Serrano ham, were too dense, firm and charred, while the fried chicken ($11) had a light, crunchy exterior glazed with a sweet chipotle sauce that sprang to life with the accompanying mint-enlivened celery root slaw.
Outside of the pizzas, meatballs must be considered the restaurant’s culinary heart and soul. You can order the moist, savory meatballs (made with beef or chicken) the size of racquetballs on a fat hoagie roll ($9.50) or as a stand-alone dish ($9), the tender orbs served in either oily tomato-based Sunday “gravy” or an unappealing, pasty Parmesan broth. Kids can order a junior version of the meatball sub from the separate kids menu, which also includes a milky macaroni and fontina cheese dish that compelled my nephews to lobby for a second order.
Speaking of kids … They (and their parents) will feel comfortable at St. Philip without seeming intrusive to those looking for a date night or business lunch. The layout of the restaurant, which also features a large outdoor seating area, gives enough space to keep noise and traffic manageable (though the area around the host stand spills into the dining room, creating human bumper cars of those waiting on a table or reservation). Parents can ease their nerves with wines from a compelling California and Europe-hopscotching list, one of about two dozen draft beers (half from Texas), or one of five wines on tap, including two offerings from nearby Duchman Winery.
In addition to pizzas and their own truncated menu, kids will likely find something they like on the sandwich menu. A classic Italian grinder, the Bomber ($10), blends the porcine pleasures of mortadella, salami and coppa, laced with the smoke of provolone and tang of housemade giardiniera on a soft, rounded, chestnut-colored hoagie roll.
The pig continued its flex on a Serrano ham sandwich ($10) with greens spackled to the meat by melted Manchego cheese between slices of fluffy country bread with a buttery mottled finish. The sandwiches come with housemade potato chips dusted with sugar and malt vinegar powder, for a salty-sweet-tart punch that could knock kettle corn right out of your snacking picture.
The various sandwich breads display the strength of St. Philip’s bake shop, the bookend to the pizza parlor experience. A brick wall is painted with the admonition to “Exit through the Bake Shop,” a subtle and cheeky nod to the excellent 2010 documentary about graffiti artist Banksy. The back of the restaurant empties into a glass-cased wonderland full of baked goods. You can order dessert at your table in the restaurant, creating sundaes ($6) with your choice of brownies, ice creams and toppings (I prefer the chocolate brownie topped with salted caramel ice cream and whipped cream), or enter the Wonka-esque room full of shiny glass cases.
There you’ll find tall, delicate slices of chocolate gingerbread cake ($3.50) and s’mores snowballs — toasted marshmallow sitting like sugary moons atop soft graham cake ($3.50). The bake shop opens early daily, serving both sweet and savory items, like a towering, crumbly egg biscuit and a perfect gruyere and thyme bialy ($3) that was puffy, flaky and gooey, with a firm edge and creamy circular heart.
Though the restaurant and shop carry the imprimatur of one of Austin’s best restaurants, St. Philip should not be considered “the Uchi of pizza and baked goods.”
When Uchi came to town, it created a niche most didn’t know we wanted or needed. It was bold, new, brilliant. St. Philip filled a niche that has desperately required more attention in South Austin in recent years: a comfortable, familiar, locally owned family-friendly restaurant that services a wide spectrum of tastes. It may not be game-changing wizardry, but it’s working.