Where: Umberto Espresso Bar, 822 High Street Thornbury
What: Homestyle Italian food at its best in a parent-friendly space
Who: Mr Whatever Floats Your Bloat, Papa Whatever Floats Your Bloat, Mama Whatever Floats Your Bloat
Bloat score: 1 – Had to loosen the belt a notch with a side of hefty heartburn
Between Papa WFYB and Mama WFYB’s dislike of noisy places and long queues, Mr WFYB’s limited palate and my numerous intolerances, it’s always a chore choosing where to go for my birthday dinner. I thought of Peruvian restaurant Pastuso, but I couldn’t see Mr WFYB eating alpaca croquettes and Patagonian red prawns. I flagged Nicholson Street institution Scopri, but I couldn’t see Mr WFYB eating any of the five pastas or the meat mains that ranged from kid goat cooked on the bone to deboned spatchcock. Every other place I could think or was either too dimly lit for my parents to comfortably read the menu – this is something they complained about at Portello Rosso – or devoid of booking systems. Finally, it came to me – all-day family-run Italian joint Umberto Espresso Bar in Thornbury was both convenient for all of us and with an expansive enough menu that everyone would find something they liked.
While Papa WFYB and Mama WFYB still encountered difficulties reading the menu at Umberto – nothing an iPhone torch couldn’t fix, though it did significantly disturb the ambience – my choice was a success. Umberto was cutesy and cosy, with enough amiable chatter to form a backing soundtrack but no so much that you couldn’t hear yourself. Tables were packed in close to one another in a long and narrow space, but you could easily weave your way in amongst them. It was perfect.
I had already scoured the menu beforehand, obviously, and decided that I would get the spaghetti alla marinara because it was in a white wine sauce instead of a tomato-based one. Italian food has been the source of much angst after I said goodbye to tomato, but if I’m being honest, my inability to order napoli sauces were apparent even on my low FODMAP diet because they’re always swimming in onion and garlic.
With this dish, I noted that white wine is on the high-histamine list alongside tomato, but I figured a tomato-based sauce would make me more ill, and besides, doesn’t all the wine evaporate in the cooking process? Or something. This dish advertised the fact that it came with garlic and I smugly ordered it without asking for the garlic to be removed, because I can eat garlic now! I turned a responsible 30, so I of course substituted regular spaghetti with gluten-free spaghetti for an extra $3.
Mama WFYB settled on my runner-up option – casarecce con broccoli with anchovies, garlic, chilli and extra virgin olive oil. Casarecce may be one of my favourites types of pasta – the short and narrow Sicilian pasta with curled edges and a groove down the middle is a textural delight with ample ‘mouth feel’ and perfectly catches any sauce it’s cooked in. The simple yet classic combination of broccoli with anchovies is always a sure win too, but anchovies are sadly on my high-histamine list of ingredients.
Papa WFYB was dithering over his choice. Mama WFYB was pressuring him to get the tagliatelle con ricotta because she wanted to try it – the apple didn’t fall far from the tree – but I know my father and he is a rice man, so it didn’t take much convincing for him to eventually settle on the risotto special with rockling.
Mr WFYB had two options – the spaghetti carbonara and the penne alla amatriciana. All the ingredients in the amatriciana were in his ‘do eat’ list – tomatoes, Spanish onion, garlic and chilli – but the former-vegetarian-of-14-years in him queried ‘pancetta’, which I reassured him tasted like bacon. He believed me, and it’s a good thing he did.
Mama WFYB can never go past calamari on an entrée menu and I couldn’t eat any of the other starters – bruschetta with tomatoes, cured meats, tuna and potato balls – so we ordered a small plate of the calamari, keeping in mind Mr WFYB abhors it. It turned out to be a conservative estimate on our part, because we devoured it in record time and could definitely have finished the larger portion. The lightly dusted calamari in semolina flour was fresh and springy in the best way possible. I even enjoyed the accompanying lemon-dressed roquette salad, so happy I was with this dish.
Our pastas arrived soon after. Papa WFYB was pleased to find his risotto order vying for best dish on the table – the lightly pan-fried rockling atop his tomato-based risotto was generously proportioned, fleshy and cooked to perfection with a crisp outer layer and pillowy insides. The risotto itself was al dente yet smooth, with the saltiness of the fish perfectly offset by the fresh sprigs of parsley scattered throughout. Papa WFYB had hit the jackpot with this order.
Mama WFYB is a fan of heady, heavily spiced dishes, and her casarecce was too light on the promised anchovies for her liking. She had also tasted a similar version of this pasta at Tipo 00 years ago (albeit with orecchiette instead of casarecce) and remembers preferring that, although she warmed to Umberto’s light, uncomplicated flavours by the time she’d finished her meal.
Mr WFYB lucked out by ordering what I thought was the best dish on the table. The penne was doused in a garlicky, piquant tomato sauce and the diced up pancetta injected bursts of saltiness upon every bite. It was simply sublime, but alas all my photos taken of it were blurry so you’ll have to use your imagination to envision this one.
Although it’s a cardinal sin to sprinkle cheese on any seafood pasta dish, my waitstaff did and I loved her for it. The scallops and prawns that took centrestage in my dish were plump and luscious, and the garlicky white wine broth my spaghetti was pooling in was perfect for mopping up with the provided (gluten-free!) bread. If I was to have one quibble, it’d be about the gluten-free spaghetti itself, which was rather thin and lacking in heft, but the aromatic flavours more than made up for it. I once again thanked the food intolerance gods that garlic was back in my life.
I am never one to go past a side of complex carbohydrates, so we ordered the rosemary and garlic-speckled fried potatoes. This side serving of potatoes were only $6 and their modest size underlined this – it was the perfect accompaniment to our full plates of pasta.
I have been obsessed with tiramisu lately – I’ve had two in the past week which is unprecedented for a dessert-ambivalent such as me – and it kick-started on the day of my birthday, when the four of us shared a tiramisu and a flourless orange tart among us us.
Both were divine, but I can thank the tiramisu for my subsequent sleepless night blighted by nausea and heartburn because I had been following my intolerances every step of the way until I got to it. Maybe this is what being 30 is all about – look forward to increased reports of bloats and nausea.
All in all, however, I had a pretty sensible dinner intolerance-wise – I’m going to give myself a pat on the back for ordering gluten-free spaghetti and abstaining from my favourite drink ever, the famed Aperol spritz. Umberto is the ideal place to celebrate a milestone if you’re not into stiff restaurants and contrived food – the dishes are honest and down-to-earth, the restaurant is charming and comfortable, and the waitstaff are pleasant to a fault. I may not be able to eat tomato, but Umberto’s penne alla amatriciana may just be worth the pain.
Umberto Espresso Bar is open Wednesday to Sunday from 8am to 9.30pm.