The new Mellow Mushroom in Mount Dora: ‘Not your average pizza place’
STORY: Shemir Wiles PHOTOS: Matthew Gaulin
Yes, it’s another pizza joint. And yes, it’s a franchise.
But before you write it off, Mellow Mushroom in Mount Dora isn’t your typical, run-of-the-mill pizzeria chain restaurant. This one takes this American staple and elevates it to gourmet status with interesting flavor combinations, acute attention to quality and lots of creativity.
If you’ve been to a Mellow Mushroom, you know what to expect. But this was my first experience at this eclectic eatery.
Founded by two Georgia Tech students determined to share their love for pizza and beer with like-minded free thinkers, the first Mellow Mushroom opened in 1974 in downtown Atlanta. Since then, Mellow Mushroom has grown to include more than 160 stores in 19 states. Mount Dora joined the family in early April.
The local brains behind Mellow Mushroom are banker Ken LaRoe, his brother Mike LaRoe and radiologist Dr. David Weyn. For a long time, Mellow Mushroom was a dream deferred.
“Back in 2006, we were looking at opening a Mellow Mushroom, but then the economy tanked,” said Mike. “We shelved the idea until 2011. Since we own this property on U.S. 441, we were determined to do something with it. Then came the financial loops that kept us thinking this would never happen. Eventually we were able to secure money for the project last year and now that it’s here we’re just hoping the community will be receptive to what we have to offer.”
What Mellow Mushroom has to offer is funky fresh dishes that reflect the chain’s quirkiness and eccentric style. Plus, Mike and his partners have an unwavering dedication to food quality and handmade delights. Much of their produce is purchased daily from local growers.
“We get our veggies fresh every day and we prep our ingredients every day,” Mike said. “The only thing we get from corporate is our dough, but what sets it apart from others is its secret ingredient: molasses.”
Another interesting element is Mellow Mushroom’s sensitivity to the health-conscious. For example, the restaurant employs no fry cooks.
“Everything is baked,” said Mike, “including our chicken wings.”
The restaurant also offers vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free food items, as well as an entire Skinny Shroom menu for those counting calories.
“We really make it a point to take care of our customers with certain dietary needs,” Mike said. “Like, with our gluten-free dishes, we make sure the food is prepared at a separate station to ensure it isn’t contaminated.”
In addition to great eats, Mellow Mushroom houses a full service sit-down bar with a large selection of wine, liquor and beer, both local and regional. Its large patio area takes the laid-back, freestyle atmosphere outdoors. And for those who play disc golf, there’s a course right on the grounds.
After soaking up the mellow vibes, I was ready to dine. I first tried two of the popular “munchies:” bruschetta, and an order of garlic butter and Parmesan pretzel bites. The bruschetta was bright and flavorful; you could taste the freshness in the diced tomatoes and basil. And the balsamic vinegar and feta cheese gave it just a hint of zest. The pretzel bites were equally phenomenal: warm and chewy and paired perfectly with the marinara and beer cheese dips that accompanied them.
For my entree, I naturally needed to try the pizza. The Holy Shiitake Pie caught my eye. Served with an olive oil and garlic base, this pizza is topped with shiitake, button and portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions, and mozzarella and MontAmore cheeses. Finished with a garlic aioli drizzle, a touch of black truffle oil, chives and shaved Parmesan, this pizza was outright delicious. The flavors were extremely rich but melded harmoniously. And the dough was cooked to perfection with the right balance of soft and crunchy.
I also was able to savor the Italian hoagie, and what made that sing was the fusion of caramelized onions, a light spring mix of greens and the house-made herb vinaigrette. It was classic but still distinctive enough to make you appreciate how daring Mellow Mushroom can be with its ingredient choices.
For dessert, Mike allowed me to sample the half-baked brownie supreme. Reminiscent of a molten chocolate lava cake, this warm, gooey sendoff was perfect, and satisfied my incessant sweet tooth. You can never go wrong with chocolate and ice cream, and Mellow Mushroom proved why on occasion it might be better to eat dessert first. I wanted more but I was too full to continue stuffing my face.
Splitting a pie at a nearby table, Paul Vining raved about Mellow Mushroom. It was his third visit and each time, he said, he makes sure to try a different pie. That day, he was chowing down on the Philosopher’s Pie.
“I love the fact I’m getting a personal-made pizza every time,” Paul said. “The dough is good, the toppings are good, and they have a great beer selection. They are just different enough to stand out, and what they serve you can’t get anywhere else around here.”
His friend Scott Willoughby chimed in with his appreciation for Mellow Mushroom’s uniqueness.
“They’re not cookie-cutter at all,” he said. “They have a wide variety of pizza and a great, family friendly atmosphere. They’re not your average pizza place.”
A couple of seats over, Carl Vossberg was enjoying his first visit — and a steak hoagie. I explained that it was my first time, too, before he goaded me into taking a picture together. We both agreed it was too good not to return.
“The service and food are both stellar,” he said with a smile. “I’ll be back.”
18221 U.S. Highway 441, Mount Dora, FL 32757
Hours of Operation:
Friday and Saturday, 11a.m.–11p.m.
Italian Hoagie: $6.99 (half), $9.99 (whole)
House Special pizza: $12.99 (small), $19.99 (medium), $24.99 (large)
Holy Shiitake Pie: $12.49 (small), $19.49 (medium), $24.49 (large)
Half-Baked Brownie Supreme: $4.49