Italian Food Without Cheese? This New Vegan Restaurant In WeHo Is Making It Happen
"Whatever you do, don't work in a restaurant," Tara Punzone's father told her.
He saw how his parents (her grandparents) were tied to Punzone's Heroes, the Brooklyn market and sandwich shop where they worked 15-hour days to serve people waiting lines that often stretched out the door. He didn't want that life for his daughter.
So Punzone got a fine arts degree in college and built a successful career as a photographer.
"But I was miserable," she says. "I just wanted to be in the kitchen."
This weekend, days after her 41st birthday, Punzone's dream of owning a restaurant will become a reality when she opens Pura Vita in West Hollywood.
Los Angeles has plenty of Italian restaurants and a constantly growing vegan scene that includes donuts, ceviche, street food, brunches, fine dining and food festivals. Cruzer Pizza in Los Feliz is 100% vegan and serves various sandwiches and pasta dishes. Crossroads Kitchen, which calls itself Mediterranean, also serves several Italian dishes. But Pura Vita, as far as we can tell, is L.A.'s first all-vegan Italian restaurant with a wine bar. Semantics aside, it's a welcome addition to L.A.'s vegan dining scene.
From Pork to Plants
Growing up in an Italian family where all her grandparents were cooks, Punzone's future seemed inevitable.
"It was all about family and all about food," says Punzone (pronounced "poon-ZONE-ee.") "Didn't matter if it was a wedding, funeral or just a regular day, it was just constant amounts of enormous dishes and food all the time. Very traditional stuff."
The traditional stuff included a lot of pork. Even the eggplant was cooked in pork fat at her grandparents' sandwich shop, which Punzone says may help explain the lines. But then she did something non-traditional. After watching a slaughterhouse video at school, she threw her lunch away and at 10 years old stopped eating meat.
Her family thought it was a phase.
"They were really supportive," says Punzone. "They were like, 'If that's how you feel, we understand but you have to learn how to cook.' So I started spending a lot of time in the kitchen and that was my school."
She began with menial tasks like peeling garlic and learning about the ingredients that go into a dish.
After reading about animal welfare and all the ways animals are used, she stopped consuming all animal products including eggs, dairy and leather. This was nearly 30 years ago and neither she nor anyone else she knew had heard of veganism.
"My family thought I was a weirdo in general because I was a metalhead and had a mohawk and purple hair, but my mom helped me do all that stuff," says Punzone.
These days Punzone sports long, dark burgundy locks that are often up in a bun.
Movin' on Up
"I swore up and down that one day I would open a restaurant based on this [vegan] discovery I had made using all these traditional things but without the torture," Punzone says.
She quit photography, then worked her way up from the bottom to head the kitchen at Pure Food and Wine, a now closed upscale vegan restaurant in Manhattan. (In 2016, five years after Punzone left the restaurant, its owner, Sarma Melngailis, was arrested after being on the run for a year. She later pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000 from an investor, failing to pay wages to employees and scheming to defraud the government of taxes.) In 2012, Punzone moved to Los Angeles to be with her boyfriend, who works as a sound designer.
She started out as a private chef then spent five-and-a-half years as culinary director and executive chef of small popular vegan restaurant chain Real Food Daily, which founder Ann Gentry sold last April.
When Punzone turned 40 last year, she felt it was time to move forward with a restaurant of her own. As for the name of her new venture, she already had it tattooed on her arms.
Pura Vita means "pure life" in Italian. Punzone had the Spanish version of the phrase, "pura vida," tattooed on her inner forearms about 20 years ago, when she first visited Costa Rica.
"They just have this way of life, they say it all the time and it's just an amazing culture and vibe down there," says, Punzone, who has returned several times to the country.
Costa Rica also inspired the welcoming vibe she wants at Pura Vita, which she interchangeably calls "plant-based" and "vegan."
"I am staunchly vegan," says Punzone. "That said, I want to promote the plant-based diet to people who are not politically vegan and I feel like the word 'vegan' carries a lot of politics, comparisons and competitions. I don't want it to be that way and be off-putting."
While she knows Pura Vita will attract vegans, she loves cooking for non-vegans.
"My favorite are those stubborn guys who are so old school that they think it's not possible for anything to taste good. I love winning them over," she says with a laugh.
That's Amore, Vegan Style
So how does a New York Italian do her family's traditional dishes justice at a plant-based restaurant? She starts with authentic ingredients.
Pura Vita's tomatoes, olives, olive oil, semolina, double zero and almond flours are imported from Italy, specifically from the southern regions where her family originates — Gragnano, the birthplace of dry pasta, and Naples.
"I don't trust the flour we grow here, even if it is organic, because we are allowed to use GMOs in this country and it is illegal in Europe. So I just trust the flours that come from Italy are cleaner," Punzone says.
Although her family ate plenty of pork, many dishes were vegan by default. Animal products were more expensive and in southern Italy they use olive oil instead of butter.
"They put cheese on top or will have one meat dish but it was actually easy to make that transition," Punzone says.
One of the biggest challenges she tackled as a budding vegan was recreating her grandma's melt-in-your-mouth lasagna without the animal products. Her grandmother Francesca cooked her homemade meat sauce for seven or eight hours, Punzone says, and always used the highest quality cheeses and fresh pasta.
"It was my favorite thing in the world to eat but I couldn't eat it anymore," says Punzone.
At first, she recreated the lasagna with cheese made from tofu but it never hit the mark. Then, while working at Pure Food and Wine, Punzone got nuts, literally.
"I understood how nuts having all that fat changes the whole game in cheese-making. It needs to be fatty and cheese is fat," Punzone says.
For the meat, she tried crumbling up Boca burgers, one of the few vegan meat substitutes back then, but the taste didn't work. Then she found that mushrooms gave her the texture she was looking for.
The recipe made its official debut after Punzone served it at a Christmas party. Gentry loved it so much, she put it on the menu at at Real Food Daily.
It has changed since then as Punzone keeps re-working her childhood favorite. "It's the same traditional idea but a completely different recipe," she says.
Her plant-based lasagna uses fresh pasta and can be made gluten-free, something many customers want. Each thick piece layers baby spinach, marinara sauce, cashew ricotta and mozzarella, crafted using traditional mozzarella making techniques. All of Pura Vita's cheeses are made in-house.
Her rich black magic lasagna with black truffle cream, ricotta, mushroom, spinach, bechamel and pesto got such a positive response at Seed Food & Wine Fest in May that she's planning to serve it at Pura Vita. It's one of only two dishes on the menu that can't be made gluten-free.
Your Roots are Showing
Dominated by a long, 12-seat bar, the cozy, upscale eatery is all about comfort food and doesn't feature any processed faux meats on its menu. Pura Vita also doesn't have a fryer, which Punzone thinks some vegan restaurants use way too much.
The rest of Pura Vita's brunch, lunch, dinner and aperitivo menus draw on her roots.
She updated a childhood favorite to offer chilled broccoli with olives and Calabrian chili lemon dressing. The "Peppas" antipasti (spelled the way her dad pronounces "peppers") is inspired by a Calabrian combo of hot peppers, raisins and nuts.
"We used to have contests to see who could eat a hotter pepper," Punzone says.
Pasta e fagioli soup and giambotta (a chunky, spicy Calabrian stew of eggplant, onions and potato) were typical childhood meals. Punzone has reimagined the famous sausage and pepper heroes of her youth with cashew mozzarella and jackfruit instead of sausage. She layers grilled citrus herb tofu, caramelized vegetables and pesto on focaccia, an Italian take on a marinated tofu sandwich she loved at New York's Angelica Kitchen, which shuttered last year. The breakfast sandwich also gets a makeover with tofu eggs, mushroom bacon and vegan mozzarella served on a cornetto (Italian croissant).
Lest you forget this is a wine bar, there's a 40-bottle vegan wine list, mostly in traditional Italian varietals like Barolo and Montepulciano. All the wines are organic or biodynamic. What makes alcohol vegan? It doesn't use any animal products like egg whites, fish bladder or gelatin in the filtration process.
Pura Vita's grand opening happens this Friday, Sep. 7 through Sunday, Sep. 9 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and includes free house wine.
Pura Vita: 8274 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. 323-688-2303, puravitalosangeles.com.
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