Smile Politely

Mia Za’s: The case for customization

Mia Za’s is a create-your-own Italian style restaurant right in the heart of campus town, serving up customizable pasta dishes, pizzas, sandwiches, and salads. Their tag line? Whole Foods. Great Fuel. Delicious Flavor. After checking it out for myself, I would have to say that Mia Za’s delivers on all three.

I went to Za’s, as students refer to it, with some friends who were visiting Champaign. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, and I figured my friends would appreciate the variety of lunch options as well as the student-approved prices.

If you’re someone who doesn’t like being bombarded with choices, or just prefers to stick to staples like spaghetti and meatballs or fettuccini alfredo, Mia Za’s might not be the place for you. But for picky eaters, the creative connoisseur, or simply those looking to put quality ingredients into their body, Mia Za’s is a dream come true. The menu is like an adult version of choose-your-own adventure, allowing you to select and customize every part of your meal. They have multiple types of pasta, breads, cheeses, and meats to choose from, as well as a huge assortment of fresh produce. For simple folk, they do have a decent selection of ‘regular’ dishes on standby, ranging anywhere from pasta carbonara to pear and goat cheese salad.

Because I couldn’t quite decide what I wanted, I chose the regular 6” panini ($5), with a small 16 oz. salad (only an extra $3.50 as part of the combo deal instead of the usual $5). I took my time perusing the topping options before settling on a salad with grilled chicken, sun-dried tomato, mushrooms, carrots, and broccoli on a bed of spring greens and spinach. I opted for the balsamic dressing on the side, but other dressing choices such as honey dijon, sesame ginger, and fuji apple sounded tasty as well. For my sandwich I selected a toasted baguette topped with marinara sauce, mozzarella, portabella, artichokes, sun-dried tomato, mushroom and green pepper. I went with this particular combination of toppings because the smell of pizza cooking in Mia Za’s large wood-fired grill was quite enticing.

We only had to wait a few minutes before our names were called out and we could pick up our food at the counter. My friends and I opted for a cozy booth on the upper level, where they had plenty of spacious seating. After settling in at a window seat overlooking the ever-bustling Green Street, I was eager to dig into my colorful salad and thick, open-faced Panini. Both looked and smelled incredibly appetizing.

Upon examination, the panini was a little sparse on toppings. Since I chose cheese as my only protein, and portabella as my only premium topping, I felt there could have been a bit more of both. They probably could have added a bit more produce as well, but because I already had the luxury of getting 5 different vegetables on my sandwich (max choice of 7), I actually didn’t feel like I was missing out on content. I’ll note that I am not someone who requires a high meat to bread ratio, so if this is a concern for you, make sure to request extra. I found the bread to be nice and thick, with a generous amount of marinara sauce — arguably the best part of the sandwich. It was robust and flavorful, with hints of garlic and herbs. The cheese was nice and melty, and the toasty crunch of the baguette really brought the whole panini together quite nicely. It definitely satisfied my pizza craving.

The salad made for a light, but filling side. There were plenty of greens, and the balsamic vinaigrette was flavorful and tasty. I was a bit disappointed with the chicken, as the chunks were tiny and just not very appetizing. The sun-dried tomatoes, however, were bursting with flavor, and really balanced out the sweet, crunchy carrots and fresh spinach. It was decent as far as salads go, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to order it again.

After polishing off my sandwich, I noticed how absorbed my boyfriend was in his chicken-bacon mac and cheese. After getting a waft of the cheesy goodness, I took a few spoonfuls. For only $7, this dish was huge —advertised as a ½ pound of pasta. I noticed a fellow diner eating the regular sized pasta ($5), and it looked considerably smaller, so for only $2 more I’d say you get a good deal. Other than the fact that the bowl was bigger than my head, the pasta was cheesy, creamy, bacon-y and delicious. This was one of Mia Za’s featured, pre-selected dishes, with a base of cavatappi pasta, chicken, bacon, cheddar sauce, and toasted panko breadcrumbs. The pasta itself was cooked al-dente, and the sauce was thick and not overpoweringly cheesy, tasting more like a creamy alfredo. It was very rich, with a nice meaty flavor to every bite. The toasted breadcrumbs were a nice addition, making the dish seem even more gourmet. While my boyfriend also opted for a side of garlic bread for just $1 more, he ended up ditching most of it, deeming the crust to be too burnt. This concern was echoed by my other dining companion, who also didn’t find her bread worth finishing. Mia Za’s does offer other side options, such as chips, soup, and cheesy bread, so those might be worth checking out instead.

A fellow pizza lover, my friend elected to order a large 11” margherita pizza ($7) as her entrée, which was one of the pre-selected options boasting of fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil, olive oil, and garlic. She really enjoyed the thin, oily crust, and found the classic combination of flavors to fulfill all of her pizza-loving needs. The pizza had plenty of diced tomatoes and marinara sauce, which complimented the melted chunks of mozzarella. It was a bit on the garlicky side, so beware of this if garlic is not your thing. It’s worth noting that Mia Za’s offers gluten-free and whole-wheat crust as well, and all of their dough is hand-stretched and house made. Overall, my friend was very satisfied with the taste, size, and price of the dish. The large pizza is big enough to split with a pal, while the 8” regular size ($5) is a good choice for those looking to go solo.

After eating, we took some time to catch up and enjoy the interesting décor that Mia Za’s has to offer. The color scheme is homey, with warm yellows and oranges, and there are an assortment of unique decorations, such as digital images and framed photographs, that pay homage to cult classics and blockbuster films alike, sure to bring nostalgia to any movie buff.

When my friend suggested we all split a piece of cheesecake, nobody could resist. I had definitely been eying the display case of tempting desserts when we walked in. We opted for a huge slice of chocolate cheesecake ($4), made of moist chocolate cake layers, rich cheesecake, chocolate curls, and chocolate ganache. To keep it short, it was everything a cheesecake should be: chocolate-y, rich, and decadent, with plenty of fresh chocolate curls. It tasted surprisingly fresh, and had a generous amount of ganache on top.

Overall, Mia Za’s is a great spot to hit with friends. It’s reasonably priced, conveniently located, and has plenty of options to help keep you on track (or not!). The service is quick with food that is sure to satisfy your taste buds, no matter how simple or how adventurous you may be.

Mia Za’s is located at 629 East Green Street, Champaign, and open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. All photos by Carly Prais. 

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