Bella offers authentic Italian cuisine, and the brand new Pasta in the Wheel!
Bella occupies a building in downtown Maryville that was built in 1925 as JC Penney, whose name is etched in a mosaic on the front door. For 20 years he was Sullivan’s Downtown, a cousin of Sullivan’s in Rocky Hill. When owner Chad Irvine decided to close his satellite location, Jim and Loni Klonaris and their partners took over the space and opened Bella in April 2020. Executive Chef TJ Saunders’ daughter, Madeline, named it: “If you’re going to have an Italian restaurant she said, “you have to call him Bella.”
As she did on Kefi, Vida and the Vault, and the Press Room, Lori Klonaris created a sophisticated interior design. Striking black bentwood light fixtures with a warm autumn glow fill the dining room with a Tuscan glow. The bar area is highlighted with rows of wood that hang vertically from the ceiling, keeping flashing TVs and bar noise out of reach of restaurant patrons. The painted white brick walls also serve to absorb sound. Blue cushioned stools provide privacy.
We started with a selection of small plates including PEI mussels, truffle fries, grilled focaccia and calamari. Seriously, eat fries. Paired with the Maple Roasted Butternut Squash Beet Salad with Candied Almonds, the sweet and salty combo is fantastic.
The theme, of course, is Tuscan. “Tuscany is known for its beef,” says Saunders. “We featured several of the region’s classic dishes.” The 14 oz. Bone-in Pork Porterhouse (in the Tuscan tradition of formidable portions) comes with apple-ginger bacon, chutney and polenta. Class seekers may prefer the prime sirloin, plated the traditional way with chile aioli and those delicious truffle Parmesan fries.
As a nod to her neighbor to the north in Lombardy, Bella also prepares a delicious veal milanesa, a robust herb-crusted veal chop served with lemon butter, arugula salad, and whipped potatoes.
Pasta fans will like the thick pappardelle noodles, topped with spicy meat ragù, herbs and goat cheese. A delicious plant-based option is wild mushroom rigatoni with asparagus and snap peas, a light mascarpone and ricotta sauce, and crumbled hazelnuts on top.
But let’s not forget about the headliner, the star of the show. The dish that Chef TJ serves to the table up to 50 times a night: Pasta on the Wheel. With a wonderful flourish, he brings a huge wheel of Grana Padano cheese to his table. Open at the top, the cheese resembles the caldera on Mount Etna. As Chef TJ poured in the brandy and lit it up, we felt a bit. . . pompeian
Saunders’ 6’5” height adds to the show. Born in Lansing, Michigan, Saunders studied culinary arts on the GI Bill at Schoolcraft College near Detroit, training with five certified master chefs and then Ed James at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, Michigan. He later moved to the San Diego area, working at Café Del Mar and Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad. If he thinks he detects a Michigan accent in his speech, he’ll be happy to correct it: “My relatives have Michigan accents,” he says. “I lost mine in my years in San Diego.” Since he moved to Knoxville in 1999, he has been a chef at Lakeside Tavern, Kalamata Café, Ruth’s Chris, and Babalu, among others.
Amid the dancing flames of the Grana Padano, Saunders scrapes soft cheese into a pot of penne pasta and stirs it around to perfectly combine the pasta and cheese. During the ceremony, he explains that Grana refers to the fine-grained texture of the cheese and Padano refers to the Po Valley in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, where Cistercian monks began making it in the 12th century. Today, Saunders says, “he is the king of cheese in Italy.” It is similar to the more familiar Parmigiano Reggiano.
Seafood lovers will appreciate the simple yet satisfying creamy Tuscan shrimp served with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, basil, garlic, served over penne pasta, or the grilled salmon with asparagus.
Desserts include the signature Zeppole filled with chocolate ganache, a dreamy Lemon Italian Cream Pie, and Apple Crostata, thinly sliced Granny Smith apples inside crispy puff pastry. We recommend pairing dessert with a delicious Spritz 75 (limoncello and Prosecco) because, as we say in Tuscany, “E finata a tarallucci e vino”, or “Finished with sweet cookies and wine”. Enjoy your meal!