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A meatless burger that tastes like meat? Ciccio Restaurants will serve the Impossible Burger.

Ciccio executive chef Luis Flores prepares an Impossible Burger Wednesday at the Epicurean Hotel Food Theatre in Tampa.
Published Sep. 21, 2017

TAMPA — The most red-hot hamburger in the nation right now contains no meat.

There are lines out the door in New York at Momofuku, owned by diehard celebrity-carnivore David Chang, at Epic Burgers in Chicago, at Umami Burger and at Bareburger locations.

And starting Sept. 27, Ciccio Restaurant Group will be Florida's first partner bringing the Impossible Burger to Tampa Bay diners. The meat-free burger that tastes remarkably like meat will be available at Lodge, Green Lemon, Daily Eats, Ciccio and Better Byrd. Fresh Kitchen is the only Ciccio Group restaurant that won't carry the patty.

Americans eat nearly 50 billion burgers a year. That's three burgers a week for every single one of us. Animal agriculture uses 30 percent of all land and more than 25 percent of all freshwater on Earth, and creates as much greenhouse gas emissions as all of the world's cars, trucks, trains, ships and airplanes combined. Imagine if even a fraction of those 50 billion burgers were made out of something more benign than cow.

"That's what I'm talking about," Jeff Gigante, co-founder of Ciccio, said Wednesday morning at a private burger tasting at the Epicurean Hotel Food Theatre in Tampa.

Gigante and crew feed 200,000 people a month at his restaurants. Still, he's a tiny player in what has become a Silicon Valley venture capital preoccupation: how to feed people better, more ethically, more affordably and with a smaller environmental impact.

Bill Gates has made three rounds of investment in the $75 million in funding for Impossible Foods, based in Redwood City, Calif. Investors read like a who's who of philanthropy and high tech. Google made a bid to acquire the startup for between $200 million and $300 million.

What has gotten everyone excited is this: The Impossible Burger uses 95 percent less land and 74 percent less water, and creates 87 percent less greenhouse gas emission. Also, the product is free of hormones, antibiotics and artificial ingredients.

It's also healthier than a beef burger. It's 220 calories and cholesterol-free. The protein, iron and fat content are comparable to conventional 80/20 ground beef: 13 grams of fat, 11 grams of saturated fat, 21 grams of protein and 470 milligrams of sodium.

But. How. Does. It. Taste?

Luis Flores, Ciccio's longtime executive chef, cooked two at a time on a small flattop grill at the Epicurean, topping each halfway through with American cheese. The room filled with the smell of the backyard barbecue, the sizzle was audible. We watched as the burgers got golden and caramelized on each side, the interior maintaining a juicy, even bloody, medium-rare texture.

Flores slid them onto toasted sesame buns, a little lettuce and tomato, and we were in business. Crusty-crunchy at the edge, juicy centered, with the kind of tooth-resistance and fibrous pull that a real meat burger has.

This is not a veggie burger, not a black bean patty or Boca or even textured vegetable protein simulation. It reads like real meat, or maybe 95 percent of the way there. There's still a tiny bit of squidge on the texture (I'd suggest ordering it cooked medium, at least), and the flavor has the umami savoriness of meat, probably imparted by its yeast extract, but a slightly noticeable grain flavor from its main ingredient, textured wheat protein.

Jason Mormino, a food service consultant for Ciccio, has been meat-free for 22 years. This was his first burger in that time, and he loved it — for him, it tasted just like the real thing. As a carnivore who ate a beef burger recently, I thought it was pretty darn close. And the price point of the product is about the same as grass-fed beef, too. Would I order a 41/2-ounce Impossible Burger at a Ciccio restaurant for $10.95?

Absolutely.

The Ciccio Restaurant Group is the 63rd launch partner for Impossible, which isn't the only fake-meat game in town. The other big player is Beyond Meat, which Tyson Foods, the largest real-meat processor in the United States, has invested in. The Dutch have made great strides in growing meat in a lab, and products like Tofurky have been the punch line for vegan-bashing jokes for years.

What makes Impossible Foods is heme, an iron-containing molecule found in most living things. Too sciency and not delicious-sounding, right?

What you need to know is that wheat protein gives these burgers a good chew, potato protein allows the patty to hold together and hold water, coconut oil (minus the coconut flavor) provides the fat and heme gives it the minerally, beefy flavor. Impossible Burgers contain soy and wheat (sorry, gluten-free-ers) as well as a whole bunch of vitamin supplements (C, B1, Niacin, B6, B2, B12). The gluten is why the burger is not offered at Fresh Kitchen, a gluten-free establishment.

"I have two kids," Gigante said while we waited for our cheese to melt. "My son, Ciro, who is 9, doesn't like vegetables. My wife was like, no way. I made him one of these and he loved it and asked for another. Then I told him it was entirely made of plants and that no animals had to die. And he got it."

Ciccio is banking on a lot of people getting it. It is hoping to sell 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of the product per month. With a production facility in New Jersey and another in Oakland, Calif., Impossible Foods is increasing production from 300,000 pounds a month to 1 million. With a projected 9 billion people on the planet by 2050 and the market for animal proteins skyrocketing in countries with growing middle classes, nothing is Impossible.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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