Tara Punzone, Chef and Founder of Pura Vita.
Pura Vita, which opened in 2018, is recognized as the first 100% plant-based Italian restaurant and wine bar in the USA. It is loved by vegans and omnivores alike for its vegan versions of Italian classics like Cacio E Pepe, Sicilian Tuna Melt, Lasagna, Margherita pizza, and Tiramisu.
After opening their first restaurant in West Hollywood and then a pizzeria next door, the Pura Vita team recently opened their third restaurant in Redondo Beach. Pura Vita raised more than $50,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to help open the pizzeria location.
Pura Vita now has three branches in Los Angeles and has also become a beloved hangout among LA’s celebrity vegan set. Famous customers include Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Woody Harrelson, Orlando Bloom, Katy Perry, Craig Robinson, and Billy Eilish, to name a few.
Chef Tara Punzone, an Italian-American from Brooklyn, NY, founded Pura Vita wanting to combine the flavors and dishes of Southern Italy with the ambiance of a New York City wine bar.
Punzone has been vegan for over 30 years. It was a love for animals that first compelled her to give up meat and dairy. “I was very young and made the connection between their lives and what was on my plate,” she says.
“When I turned vegan at a very young age, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my family, trying to recreate the dishes they made without using any animal products. When I was 12 years old, I told my father that I wanted to open a vegan Italian restaurant. It took almost 30 years but now I have three!” says the chef very proudly.
Before starting Pura Vita, Punzone was the culinary director for another vegan restaurant in LA and before that, worked her way up the industry at several restaurants in New York City. She has a Master’s of Fine Arts degree specializing in photography.
Photo of Fusilloni Primavera from Pura Vita.
Creating classic Italian dishes that are dominated by cheese and cream wasn’t hard for Punzone. “The process of using nuts is a life changer in creating vegan dishes that are creamy. The only difficulty is for the guests who have a nut allergy. That’s where it gets complicated! But I always have nut-free options for those with allergies.”
Pura Vita is considered the first vegan Italian wine bar and restaurant in the US. Vegan wines have gained popularity in recent years. Punzone explains how she picks her vegan wines.
“There are lots of wineries that add ingredients to their wines which make the wine not vegan. It mostly has to do with the fining process where they use ingredients such as gelatin, isinglass (fish bladder), casein (milk protein) or aluminum (egg whites). Luckily there are several fining agents that are vegan friendly like bentonite clay, carbon, limestone or even simply unfiltered. The wineries that are very small production or are biodynamic have a natural tendency to be the wines that are vegan as those wineries are more careful with clean ingredients and technique. Most of our wines are very small production, organic and natural wines from Italy. I have several wine vendors who make sure everything is 100% vegan before they bring anything to me to taste. I will not taste it unless I can see for sure it is vegan. Some wineries, such as Barberani in Umbria, go as far as having the vegan certification stamp on the label. I love that commitment!.”
Photo of Pizza and Vegan Wine from Pura Vita.
Pura Vita makes everything from scratch using locally sourced organic ingredients alongside some special Italian imports. They make their own cheeses and even make their own alternative protein substitute called Polpettine—a house-made mushroom lentil meatball that is often used in their dishes. Sustainability is extremely important for Pura Vita. They try to keep their carbon footprint as small as possible. All of their disposables are made from earth-friendly materials. They recycle everything they can and produce virtually zero waste.
Our members have many favorite dishes here. One very popular item is the Calabrese made with spicy red pepper sauce. Also popular is the classic Italian dessert Tiramisu, here made vegan with a vanilla bean cashew mascarpone, espresso and cocoa.
When we asked Punzone what her favorite dish from the Pura Vita menu is, she said, “It is a very difficult question. It’s like asking to choose your favorite child. Carbonara pasta. Diavolina Pizza. But that’s just today. it changes!”
As popular as Pura Vita is, the restaurant—like so many others around the world—has suffered because of the pandemic. “COVID has been the biggest struggle for us. Once we find our new normal in the restaurant industry, everything else will seem simple after surviving this year!” hopes Punzone.
Photo of mini Pizzettas from Pura Vita.