An Italian restaurant can be a minefield if you're a diner with dietary restrictions. Vegans are confronted with cream sauces, cheeses, and egg-based pastas. For the gluten-free among us, the pitfalls are even more obvious: Pastas, breads, and breading are often wheat-based and make up the heart of most Italian-American cuisine.
Jonathan Steenerson, executive chef at Ciao Bella, wants to change all that. Well, some of that. He won't be doing away with what works for the everyday eater; he's simply adding a bit of flexibility to his menu.
"My mother has celiac disease, and witnessing the pain she goes through when she gets gluten in her meal made me more sympathetic," says Steenerson, who opened Ciao Bella 10 years ago and recently returned to take it over again. Since his return nine months ago, Steenerson has also come to another conclusion about accommodating different diets: "Nowadays, the way the economy is, you have to get every person possible to choose you over the 400 other restaurants around you."
Gluten-free penne and linguini are already available at Ciao Bella, and a gluten-free pizza crust is in the works. Vegans can order from the menu, opting for a cheese-less pizza with fresh vegetables, or order off-menu, where Steenerson keeps his grilled vegan mozzarella salad with balsamic reduction and farm fresh tomatoes. You may also be treated to what we sampled a few nights ago: a spinach fettuccini with chickpea and pine nut pesto served in a roasted acorn squash and topped with perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes.
Locavores will also find a friendly feast at Ciao Bella: 60 percent of their produce comes from Woodson Ridge Farms in Oxford, Mississippi, and their meat (with the exception of their veal) comes exclusively from Newman Farm in Missouri and Heritage Farms in Arkansas. They also work with YoLo, which is right next door, exchanging ideas for flavors and even borrowing their machines to make a range of sorbets and sorbettos. Everything is made from scratch.
"I have that Alfred E. Neuman quote hanging on my wall: 'We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors and furniture polish is made from real lemons,'" Steenerson says. "I want to reverse that."
Ciao Bella, 565 Erin Dr. (205-2500)
Hog and Hominy, the newest venture from Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, is slated to open around Valentine's Day 2012. Located in a house across the street from Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, the casual wine bar and pizzeria centers on a wood-fire stove, where Ticer says all of the pizzas and many of the other dishes will be prepared.
The pizzas will be made in the Naples style — a thin but chewy crust with a delicate blistering on the bottom. "We're going to make the dough fresh every day. It'll be the perfect pizza," Ticer says. "It's going to be awesome."
As for the toppings, Ticer was a little less forthcoming. With Cochon 555 — the epic pig and wine competition in which he and Hudman are contestants — in February, the finer points of the menu are still in the works.
But Ticer was able to confirm that, in addition to pizzas, the menu will offer salads and baked pasta dishes, made with the same handmade pasta prepared across the street. And, as always, Ticer and Hudman will maintain their commitment to using fresh, local ingredients, including Newman Farm pork and produce from Mid-South farms.
So why the name Hog and Hominy for a pizza joint?
"Well, we love the pig. It's our favorite protein, because it's so versatile," Ticer says. "But also Tennessee was known as the hog and hominy state back in the 1830s, and we're from Memphis, so we wanted to do something as a kind of homage to where we're from."
Hog and Hominy will be open for lunch, dinner, and late-night seven days week.
Hog and Hominy, 707 W. Brookhaven Circle