People were telling me about Ciao Bella Italian Grill's beef brisket gnocchi shortly after I arrived at the recent Cirque du CMOM fundraiser at the Children's Museum of Memphis. Ciao Bella was one of 20 or so restaurants with food stations at the event.
Toward midnight, when I finally reached the north side of the building where Ciao Bella was located, Matthew Thomas, who manned the station with Gene Milton, told me they went through nine of the 13 pans of the gnocchi they brought to the party.
"Are you the guys with the gnocchi?" asked a guest while I was standing there. A nearby bartender asked Milton and Thomas if they had any gnocchi left.
I visited Ciao Bella restaurant a day or so later. When I ordered the gnocchi, my server, Hana Meskovic, described it as "the ultimate comfort food."
It's slow-braised prime beef tossed with portabella mushrooms, fresh basil, pine nuts and gnocchi with Parmesan cheese made with goat cheese and veal demi-glace.
I ordered the full portion, but Ciao Bella also offers a half-portion. I couldn't eat all of mine. "I've only seen two full-grown 6-5 men eat the entire thing, and they were miserable (in a good way)," Mescovic said. "My cousins, actually."
Jonathan Steenerson, the restaurant's executive chef, said the dish, which has been on the menu for nine months, is a tribute to his grandmother, Martha McGregor, who died Jan. 28 at age 93. "My grandmother used to make meat and potatoes: braised beef with red potatoes; like a pot roast," he said.
He described her dish as "beef and 'taters comfort food for wintertime yumminess."
His grandmother definitely was one of his cooking influences, Steenerson said. She used to make cranberry, walnut and banana breads, 150 loaves "in her little kitchenette in her retirement home" as Christmas gifts to the other ladies at the home in Indianapolis.
Steenerson used gnocchi instead of potatoes to make the dish "a little modern." He made it richer by using the goat cheese and veal demi-glace.
He used to make the dish with Kobe beef, but last November he switched to Black Angus beef locally raised at Claybrook Farms in Covington, Tenn.
Steenerson said he makes the beef brisket gnocchi, which is the restaurant's "No. 1 seller," for all his charity events. He doesn't use the pine nuts for those events because some people are allergic to them.
Ciao Bella Italian Grill, 565 Erin Drive; 901-205-2500.