Note: I’m vacationing this week, so I pulled this column from my archives. I made my first trip to Mona Lisa’s Gelato in Johnson City this spring. My column was originally published April 6, 2012. With the weather turning cooler, gelato may not hold the same appeal as it does during the scorching heat of summer. However, this fantastic eatery also offers wonderful daily soups and sandwiches. During recent visits I’ve enjoyed such soups as Black-eyed Peas and Spicy Sausage, as well as Bombay Curry with Lentils. These made-from-scratch soups are fantastic, and they can really hit the spot on a cool day. So, I’ve made my soup pitch. Just be sure to save room for one of the wonderful gelatos at the end of your meal.
After several friends repeatedly urged me to pay a visit to Mona Lisa’s Gelato, I made my first visit to this delightful Johnson City restaurant in the company of one of the friends making the recommendation.
In case you’re under any impression that gelato and ice cream are identical, you’ll need only the one visit to Mona Lisa’s to disabuse you of this notion.
According to the website and helpful Facebook page maintained by Mona Lisa’s Gelato, the passion for gelato originated in Italy. Gelato is regarded by enthusiasts as the world’s most delicious ice cream. The Italian word “gelato” translates as “frozen” in English. While traditional ice cream is composed of 50 percent air and has an average of 15 percent butterfat, gelato has only 25 percent air and an average of 7 percent butterfat. This results in a much more dense and creamy product that has very little heaviness and leaves virtually no residue on the back of the palate.
Further, the website says that regular ice cream is served at zero degrees Fahrenheit where gelato is served at around 10 degrees. This also contributes to the intense flavor and the texture is much creamier. Gelato typically has one third less calories than ice cream with an average of 65 calories per ounce.
According to the Facebook page, Mona Lisa’s Gelato is an all-natural product whose flavors are imported directly from Italy, made in the finest Italian machines using methods taught at an Italian-owned and operated gelato school by master gelato makers, or gelatiers.
In addition, the website notes that Mona Lisa’s uses milk and cream from local dairies certified by the USDA and creates its gelato fresh daily in its own kitchen. Mona Lisa’s also offers several flavors of gelato and sorbetto that use Splenda rather than sugar to create tasty products for those who are diabetic or who are simply seeking a low calorie alternative.
Mona Lisa’s Gelato is owned and operated by Steve and Sheridan Nice. After traveling to Italy together and eating gelato every day, they reasoned that it would be impractical to travel to Italy as often as they craved gelato. Instead, they opened their pleasant eatery in Johnson City.
The restaurant is tastefully and whimsically decorated with butter-yellow walls featuring hand-painted murals reminiscent of Italian row shops and bistros.
A cross-shaped display of hand-made flower blossoms are arranged on one wall, providing a floral frame for a replica of Leonardo DaVinci’s famous painting, Mona Lisa.
Other decorative touches include stained-glass suncatchers hanging in the front windows and artwork by local artists displayed on the walls. Black metal chairs and tables provide seating on light-gray tile floors.
In addition to gelato, the restaurant also offers a selection of scratch-made sandwiches, which are served daily, with pizza added to the menu every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On other days, check the menu board for other daily specials.
Several creative soups are also offered on a rotating daily basis, including Tomato-Artichoke Soup, New England Clam Chowder, Chicken and Mushroom with Wild Rice, White Bean Chicken Chili, Chipotle Beef Stew, Minestrone, Thai Chicken Noodle Soup and Thai Overdrive Soup.
The day’s offerings are written in colored chalk on a board located at the front counter, where customers place their orders. The counter is also in clear view of the tempting gelato flavors displayed within a glass refrigeration case. No one’s likely to leave Mona Lisa’s without one of the treats as a dessert.
My friend and I arrived too late on a Sunday afternoon for the daily special — an Italian Meatloaf Sandwich — but we still had several sandwiches from which to choose.
Sandwiches include Tuna Salad, Rotisserie Chicken Salad, Black Forest Ham and Baby Swiss, Roasted Turkey and Cheddar, and Home Made “Died and Gone to Heaven” Pimento Cheese. All sandwiches are accompanied by a bag of chips. That was my only slight disappointment with Mona Lisa’s. I would have liked some other side options, perhaps pasta salad or potato salad, to accompany my sandwich.
I ordered the Tuna Salad Sandwich on a Ciabatta Roll accompanied by a cup of Thai Overdrive Soup. The soup, served in a small glass container, consisted of minced pork and rice in a well-seasoned clear broth. The excellent Tuna Salad boasted a mild yet flavorfully seasoned taste. The smooth consistency of the Tuna Salad also contrasted nicely with the texture of the Ciabatta Roll.
My dining companion selected the Black Forest Ham and Baby Swiss Sandwich, on a Croissant, accompanied by a cup of the Chipotle Beef Stew. This hearty soup featured a mix of tender chunks of beef with potatoes, corn, tomatoes and beans, all seasoned quite nicely.
The sandwiches proved top-notch and I loved the soups. In fact, next time I will order a bowl instead of a cup. They’re that good!
Of course, after finishing off the sandwiches and soups, it was time for the trip to the display cases housing more than a dozen different flavors of gelato. A sampling of available flavors includes Super Chocolate, Blood Orange, Blackberry, White Chocolate Raspberry, Birthday Cake, Mona Latte, Roasted Almond and White Fig, Spumoni, Grapefruit, Crème Brûlée, Rum Raisin, Watermelon, Mint and Chip and Chocolate Mocha.
I chose a large three-flavor bowl of gelato while my dining companion chose a waffle cone filled with three scoops of different gelato flavors.
My three flavors consisted of Roasted Almond and White Fig, Crème Brûlée and Spumoni. My dining partner selected the Crème Brûlée, Chocolate Mocha and Rum Raisin.
I fell in love with the Roasted Almond and White Fig, with the two flavors really complementing each other. I also enjoyed the Crème Brûlée, which truly was reminiscent of the traditional custard treat. Fans of the Italian ice cream Spumoni will also enjoy the triple-flavor combination of cherry, pistachio and chocolate.
On his first visit, my friend raved about the Super Chocolate, Blood Orange and Mona Café (coffee) flavors.
I greatly enjoyed my first visit, and I predict I’ll be making regular stops in the future at Mona Lisa’s Gelato. Although the restaurant offers counter service, the staff still provided a personal touch, including offering a taste sample of any of the soups and gelatos before deciding on the ones we wanted. They were also eager to answer any questions we posed to them.
Whether you’re looking for a full meal or a quick and delicious frozen treat, Mona Lisa’s Gelato can meet your needs. With the weather turning warmer, a lush and creamy gelato could be just the ticket for relaxing on a sunny afternoon or evening. If you go, let them know they were recommended.
AT A GLANCE: Mona Lisa’s Gelato, 305 W. Oakland Ave., Johnson City. 262-8357. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.- 7 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday, noon-7 p.m. Menu items $6.95 and under. Credit cards accepted. Carryout available.