Bella offers authentic Italian cuisine—and the flaming Pasta in the Wheel!
Bella occupies a building in downtown Maryville that was built in 1925 as a J.C. Penney, whose name is memorialized in a mosaic at the front door. For 20 years it was Sullivan’s Downtown, a cousin to Sullivan’s on Rocky Hill. When owner Chad Irvine decided to close his satellite venue, Jim and Loni Klonaris and their partners took the space and opened Bella in April of 2020. Executive Chef T.J. Saunders’ daughter Madeline named it: “If you’re going to have an Italian restaurant,” she said, “you have to call it Bella.”
As she did at Kefi, Vida and the Vault, and the Press Room, Lori Klonaris created a sophisticated interior design. Striking light fixtures of black bentwood with a warm interior autumnal glow suffuse the dining room with a Tuscan glow. The bar area is set off with rows of stick lumber that hang vertically from the ceiling, keeping the flashing TVs and bar noises from the restaurant patrons. Painted white brick walls also serve to absorb sound. Blue padded banquettes provide privacy.
We started with a selection of small plates including PEI mussels, truffle fries, grilled focaccia and calamari. Seriously, have the fries. Paired with the beet salad with maple-roasted acorn squash and candied almonds, the sweet-salty combination is fantastic.
The theme, of course, is Tuscan. “Tuscany is known for its beef,” says Saunders. “We feature several of the region’s classic dishes.” The 14 oz. bone-in Pork Porterhouse (in the Tuscan tradition of formidable servings) comes with apple-ginger bacon, chutney, and polenta. Classists may prefer the prime sirloin, plated in the traditional manner with chili aioli and those decadent parmesan truffle fries.
As a nod to their neighbor to the north in Lombardy, Bella also prepares a delicious Veal Milanese, a robust herb-crusted veal chop served with lemon butter, arugula salad and whipped potatoes.
Pasta aficionados will like the thick pappardelle noodles, covered in a spicy meat ragu, herbs, and goat cheese. A delightful plant-based option is the wild Mushroom Rigatoni with asparagus and peas, a light mascarpone sauce and ricotta and hazelnuts crumbled on top.
But let’s not forget the headliner, the star of the show. The dish that Chef T.J. serves tableside as many as 50 times an evening: Pasta in the Wheel. With a wonderful flourish, he brings an enormous wheel of Grana Padano cheese to your table. Open at the top, the cheese resembles the caldera of Mt. Etna. When Chef T.J. poured the brandy and lit it, we felt a little . . . Pompeiian.
Saunders’ 6’5” stature adds to the show. A native of Lansing, Michigan, Saunders studied culinary arts on the G.I. Bill at Schoolcraft College near Detroit, training under five certified master chefs and then with Ed James at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, Michigan. He then moved to the San Diego area, working at Café Del Mar and the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad. If you think you detect a Michigan accent in his speech, he is happy to correct you: “My relatives have a Michigan accent,” he says. “I lost mine in my years in San Diego.” Since moving to Knoxville in 1999, he’s cheffed at Lakeside Tavern, Kalamata Café, Ruth’s Chris, and Babalu, among others.
Amid the dancing flames of the Grana Padano, Saunders scrapes the softening cheese into a pot with penne pasta and stirs it to perfectly combine the pasta with the cheese. During the ceremony, he explains that Grana refers to the finely grained texture of the cheese and Padano refers to the Po Valley in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, where Cistercian monks started making it in the 12th century. Today, says Saunders, “It’s the king of cheese in Italy.” It is similar to the more familiar Parmigiano Reggiano.
Seafood lovers will appreciate the simple but satisfying creamy Tuscan Shrimp served with sun-dried tomato, spinach, basil, garlic, served atop penne pasta, or the grilled salmon with asparagus.
Desserts include signature Zeppole filled with chocolate ganache, a dreamy lemon Italian crème cake and Apple Crostata—thinly sliced Granny Smith apples inside crisp 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 “It ended with sweet biscuits and wine.” Buon Appetito!