One such restaurant that makes a habit of successful adaptation and evolution is Mona Lisa’s Gelato & Café.
Owners Sheridan and Steve Nice were the folks who introduced Johnson City to the delicious difference between gelato and what the rest of us were calling ice cream. In addition, the classically-trained Sheridan evolved the Mona Lisa menu to include some of the best original sandwiches and other light fare being served for lunch or for supper.
Mona Lisa Gelato & Café occupies the left-most storefront at 305 W. Oakland Ave. in Johnson City. There is a cozy little patio set up out front with chairs and tables for use when the weather is nice and the West Oakland traffic doesn’t drown out the conversation.
Inside, Mona Lisa’s customers are greeted by a friendly soul behind the checkout counter, standing next to the chilled display case showing the current gelato selections. On the wall behind is a big chalkboard listing the day’s specials. To the left is a portable steam table capable of holding various soups, stews and the like. Next is another display case for tarts and desserts.
The inside dining area has six tables seating four diners each, so it would be wise for you to snag a table while the rest of your group is busy studying the day’s specials on the chalkboard out front. Rest rooms (clean and tidy) can be found at the rear of the dining area.
A Meat Loaf sandwich …
After about five minutes of my being hypnotized by the day’s gelato offerings in the display case out front, my dining partner suggested that I give my lunch order. Seeing that Mona Lisa’s home-style meat loaf was available as a plate lunch, I decided to have some on a house-baked ciabatta roll, ($12.99) rather than plating it.
Though the sandwich was delivered tableside with condiments to hand, none were needed. Sheridan Nice’s take on home-style meat loaf started with ground chuck and sirloin, mixed with egg, chopped red bell pepper, onion and just the right blend of spices to make it extra special. One bite of the meat loaf on its properly-baked ciabatta bun was all I needed to confirm I’d made the right choice.
Half a Chicken Salad sandwich …
Still working on her late breakfast, my dining partner ordered just half of a ciabatta bun full of Mona Lisa’s chicken salad ($5). Sheridan takes finely chopped breast of chicken and mixes in chopped celery, onion and other good things from the garden, then blends it all with a mildly-spiced mayonnaise before serving a generous dollop of it on a freshly-baked ciabatta bun. I was allowed just a taste of the chicken salad and could understand why my dining partner liked it so much.
A Reuben panini …
While my dining partner and I were swapping tastes and nibbles, the Carnivore was digging into Mona Lisa’s version of the classic Reuben sandwich ($12). Here, well-seasoned corned beef is sliced thin as a lace curtain, then stacked on a Panini in alternating layers with Emmenthaler cheese and the most delicately-flavored sauerkraut I’ve ever tasted. After crunching down a couple of bites that included some dill pickle slices added for taste, the Carnivore pronounced it to be one of the best Reuben sandwiches he’d ever eaten.
half a Chicken Bacon Cheddar Ranch panini …
The Dieter chose a Mona Lisa half-sandwich, being half of a chicken bacon & cheddar ranch style Panini ($6). Sheridan’s take on the CBR was different from most, matching slices of extra sharp cheddar cheese with marinated chicken and smoky bacon crumbles, adding creamy smooth ranch dressing and then grilling the panini until everything was melted and yummy.
… and Gelato for “Afters”
After all of use had finished our entrees, it was time for dessert. After all, what’s the point of dining in where gelato is served for dessert if you don’t have some?
As usual, the Carnivore decided to give dessert a miss, saying that “Dessert takes up stomach room that could be better filled with meat.” The rest of us having no compunction about having a sweet finish to our meal, returned to Mona Lisa’s gelato display case up front for a look-see. My dining partner opted for a scoop of Mona Lisa’s tiramisu gelato, while the Dieter chose some of their triple smooth chocolate.
Since both the Dieter and my dining partner wanted to try some of what the other had chosen, they had both scoops put in one cup with two spoons. I chose a single scoop of Mona Lisa’s blood orange sorbet in a waffle cone.
Gelato differs from ice cream in that it is hand- rather than machine-blended. Hand blending means less air is folded into the mixture. This gives the gelato a denser, smoother consistency with a stronger flavor bouquet, so you can have less of it and still be satisfied. Sorbet being the fruit juice version of gelato, my blood orange sorbet was a tangy sweet treat, right down to the bottom of its still-crunchy waffle cone. As for my dining partner and the Dieter, they had a leisurely race to see who’d get in the “last lick.” The Dieter won by half a spoonful.
Mona Lisa’s Gelato & Café is a great place to enjoy sandwiches and other light fare for lunch or supper, and then finish your meal with some of the best gelato made in the Tri-Cities. Sheridan and Steve Nice make sure that their business is constantly adapting and evolving; their excellence and attention to detail in both menu and customer service is a sure reason why Mona Lisa’s got that smile on her face.
Mona Lisa’s Gelato & Café
305 W. Oakland Ave.
Sun 12 noon – 8 p.m
Mon – Thu 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Fri 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sat 12 noon – 10 p.m.
Available on Facebook, social media
Credit cards accepted