Italian restaurants are pretty hit or miss for vegans. Usually miss. Many use egg-based, fresh pastas, and that rules out pretty much everything except a bland platter of marinara-topped penne pasta (because penne pasta isn't usually made from fresh egg pasta). But there's one Italian restaurant in Memphis looking to change that stereotype.
Ciao Bella, a dimly-lit romantic restaurant hidden away inside a shopping center in East Memphis, is looking to increase their offerings for people with special diets, namely vegans, vegetarians, and the gluten-free crowd. They generously offered to provide me samples of their new vegan offerings last night, and I was more than impressed.
For starters, we were served Vegan Grilled Mozzarella Over a Fresh Tomato with Balsamic Sauce and a Tomato Broth:
This large hunk of vegan cheese (I'm guessing it was Follow Your Heart) was lightly grilled, so it had a slight hint of char-grilled taste. But somehow Chef Jonathan Steenerson kept the cheese from melting. It was drizzled with a tangy-sweet balsamic reduction. That tomato under the cheese came from a Woodson Ridge Farms, a local farm where Ciao Bella sources most of its vegetables. The chef told us all the vegetables we were served were hand-picked that very morning!
The next course was Spinach Fettucine with Roasted Almond & Chickpea Pesto in an Acorn Squash:
Wow! I'd never in a million years think to serve pasta in a squash, but what a good idea! With each bite of pasta, we scooped up a little squash flesh. The pesto was delectable. I'm so impressed that an Italian restaurant that serves meat would create a vegan pesto. Chef Steenerson really knows what he's doing with vegan food.
Next we were served Broiled Tofu with Brussels Sprout Puree and Purple Carrots:
Now, let me say this. I love tofu, and there's nothing I appreciate more than a chef who knows that the simple, clean flavors of fresh tofu deserve to shine. This tofu was done just right. It wasn't marinated, as far as I can tell. It was simply broiled to perfection, and the texture was spot on. With each bite of tofu, I scooped up a little of the uber-flavorful Brussels puree. Oh, and the purple carrots?! Magnificent.
By this point, we were stuffed. But there was yet another entree course — Vegan Pizza with Pine Nuts, Onion, Tomato, and Garlic with Olive Oil and a Balsamic Reduction:
This is the kind of pizza that needs no fake cheese. Y'all know I love the vegan cheese, but this pizza was better without it. The crust was light, airy, and somewhat reminiscent of puff pastry, and the basic toppings really stayed true to the light crust. Lucky for me, I still have some leftover since we were too stuffed to eat the whole pie.
Though we barely had room for dessert, we quickly devoured all of our Limoncello Sorbet:
Unlike most lemon sorbets I've tried, this one had a coconut base so it was thick and creamy like a dairy-based gelato. But the crisp lemon flavors stood out. I wanted about five more bowls of this. Ciao Bella is fortunately located next to Memphis' most popular local yogurt joint, Yolo. So they use Yolo's equipment to make their signature sorbets and gelatos.
Y'all know I tend to stick to comfort fare when dining out, but this food just might convert me into a gourmand. I'm always blown away when a non-vegan chef knows how to prepare stellar vegan food.
If you're planning a romantic vegan date or family dinner, Ciao Bella is definitely the most vegan-friendly Italian option in town. Chef Steenerson said he can create most of these dishes on any night. They're not on the menu yet, but if you tell your server you're vegan, he'll whip up something special. If you have a chance to call ahead, that might help too. For my gluten-free friends: Chef Steenerson said his first shipment of gluten-free pasta arrives today, so he can accommodate you too!
Ciao Bella is located at 565 Erin Drive. Call 901-205-2500.