Pure and sweet [restaurant review]

Pura Vita proves that Italian vegan food can be luscious

“I’ve been perfecting these recipes for 20 years,” said Pura Vita chef and partner Tara Ponzone. “I grew up in an Italian household, and we cooked classic dishes and family recipes every day. When I told my parents that I was a vegetarian they were happy to help me adapt recipes for my taste.” Photo by JP Cordero

One of the hit films of the 1960s was La Dolce Vita, a bleak comedy about shallow, thrill-seeking hipsters in Rome. The title, which means “The Sweet Life,” is ironic in that the sophisticates have wealth but not the capacity to enjoy it, nor to appreciate simple pleasures and natural beauty.

The essence of the thing they missed might be called La Pura Vita, the pure life. That’s not the title of a film, but a new restaurant in Redondo Beach. The spinoff of a West Hollywood original has a mission to serve Italian food that is true to tradition, yet made entirely without animal products. That’s a tall order for a cuisine famous for the use of milk products, seafood, and meat, particularly since so many Italian recipes are so simple. In a caprese salad of tomatoes, basil, and cheese you taste the quality of all those ingredients, so you notice if one is an imperfect counterfeit of the real thing.

I went to Pura Vita with the deepest of skepticism, despite emails from readers proclaiming the food is excellent. Excellent for vegan Mediterranean, I thought, setting a bar so low that it was a trip hazard. We arrived early for our reservation and waited inside the door, with a view of the dishes going from the kitchen to tables. I surveyed them warily. I had to admit the pizzas looked good, the dough freckled with the “leopard spots” that mark a real Naples-style pie. At least there would be something to enjoy, but… wait, they smelled like real pizzas too, as did the order of meatballs that went past. Perhaps something really was happening here.

I recognized our server Mayra from her previous job at another fine dining establishment, and knew I could ask for recommendations and get a straight answer. She guided me away from a starter I had planned to order in favor of something very simple, baked ricotta cheese with house-baked ciabatta. We were going to get a salad along with this, but I had to try those meatballs.

The bread that arrived looked conventional because it was – lightly toasted slices of a loaf from a wood burning oven, with the high rise and crisp crust you’d expect. The ricotta was more of a surprise, because while it was made from cashew or other nut milks, it was better than most ricotta I have experienced. Beneath a crust from the broiler was a creamy, fluffy, delicately nutty cheese that was not at all a compromise from the standard version. The first bite opened a world of possibilities.

The meatballs surprised me less because I had already known vegan meats can be very good, and besides, meatballs in sauce are really an excuse to eat sauce and theirs smelled right. The “macadamia parmigiano” that was sprinkled on top was a bit odd – it crisped like conventional parmesan but added sweet notes instead of the slight funkiness in the conventional version. If you don’t think of it as a parmesan and just enjoy it for itself, it’s a nice addition. As for the sauce, it’s a traditional Southern Italian red sauce, thick and rich concentrated tomato with herbs and a judicious shot of garlic and pepper. We had saved a last bit of ciabatta and used it to mop the plate.

With our starters we had wine from their list, which as might be expected was mostly Italian and mostly organic. Mayra brought tastes of a Gavi and a Sicilian Muscadetta orange wine, and while we liked the dry but fruity gavi we found the orange unimpressive. I later realized that it had been served quite cold, and this wine is best at around 60 degrees, which was about the ambient temperature that evening. It might have improved if allowed to rest a bit, but instead I ordered a Falanghina that was fine just as it arrived. We finished the last of the wine and crumbs from the appetizers while enjoying the ambiance on the rear patio, which was separated from traffic noise by the building. The music ranged from ‘50s rock and Sinatra to occasional classical pieces, an eclectic mix that set a playful mood.

From top clockwise, capricciosa pizza, meatballs, baked ricotta, and spaghetti carbonara. Photo by JP Cordero.

For main courses, we ordered spaghetti carbonara and a Capricciosa pizza of mozzarella, tomato sauce, artichoke, crimini mushrooms, shiitake “bacon,” olives, and oregano. I was already pretty sure I’d like the pizza because I knew there was such a thing as a good vegan mozzarella, but was curious about the carbonara because it seemed impossible. Real Italian carbonara is a very simple dish that uses no milk or cream but gets texture and body from the egg that is whipped into the hot pasta just before serving. Here they use avocado instead. Granted, avocado does have a lush, fatty texture, but how would the flavor work? It was not a true substitute because in the traditional version egg lends richness, but not a lot of flavor, while the avocado has a distinctive character that was faint but present in every bite. The sauce also included a macadamia nut-based romano cheese sauce and the smoked shiitake that had a bacon-ish flavor but a mushroom texture. Taken as a whole, it didn’t replicate the flavor of a carbonara, but was a satisfying dish that was inspired by it. I preferred it with a few grinds of pepper, and also asked for a bit of the vegan parmesan to see how that worked when not baked on top of meatballs. I was offered two, one based on coconut and one on macadamia. The coconut had the right texture but was too sweet, while the macadamia was closer to the traditional flavor but had a powdery texture. Unlike the mozzarella and ricotta, both cheeses that are at their best immediately after being made, traditional parmesan has to be aged for a minimum of 10 months to acquire its distinctive character. Whether vegan cheeses don’t age in the same way or these are produced by a different process, they’re not quite there, yet.

The pizza put that mozzarella freshness on display, and it was top notch by any standard. The irregular crust had puffed and bubbled to airy lightness, and the balance of sauce, cheese, and vegetables was delightful. If you order one, plan to eat the center with a fork because the thin crust doesn’t stay crisp for long beneath the moist toppings, but that’s the case with the super-thin Neapolitan crusts anywhere. We paired the pizza with glasses of a Nero d’Avola and a classic Chianti, classics that matched the food just as they were supposed to.

For dessert we had the zeppole, Italian doughnuts, and a Sicilian pine nut cookie. The zeppole was a surprising failure after all the other things that had come from that kitchen, oily outside and doughy at the center. After the high standard of everything else I assume the person at the fryer was having an off day. Luckily, the cookie was excellent. These cookies are labor-intensive and use expensive ingredients, so are usually reserved for weddings and other special occasions in Italy. This one was first rate, and would be even better paired with a bit of the raspberry coulis that is offered on the chocolate fudge cake that is another dessert choice.

This branch of Pura Vita is a fairly new operation. but is running smoothly, and they have proved that vegan Italian fine dining can work. Vegan versions of animal foods are getting better as more people with a passion for flavor adopt the lifestyle. Pura Vita shows the dedication of Chef Tara Punzone for both health and flavor. The pure life can be the good life, and she proves it beyond argument.

Pura Vita is at 320 Catalina in Redondo Beach. 3 to p.m. Tue-Thu. 3 to 10 p.m. Fri. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sat. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sun. Small parking lot in rear, entry from Pearl, or street parking. Beer and wine served. (424) 304-2247. PuraVitaLosAngeles.com. ER 

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Written by: Richard Foss

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