324 Pujo Street • Lake Charles • 337-436-6251
Mike was a part of the original Italian Villa, working directly under his father, and he eventually took over the day-to-day operations only a few short years before his father passed away.
One of my first questions was: Why, after so many years away from the crazy life of owning a restaurant, would Mike want to get back into it? Mike’s simple answer to that question was that the passion was still in him, and with the motivating help of the Richards, the passion is becoming reality.
My assistant, Garret, worked for Mike for many years, and he came along with me to meet with Mike. Garret asked him about the name change, especially since people that worked at the original location were already calling it “The Villa.” Mike said that since he had a new vision for the place, he felt the new name only made sense.
I was very curious to see if we were going to get the same menu as the Italian Villa, or if Mike was planning on going in a new direction. To my surprise, Mike has plans for a more traditional Italian menu. I said that I felt the Italian Villa had a lot of New Orleans Italian in the old menu that stayed close to authentic Italian, while also incorporating the flavors that Louisiana Italians have picked up over the years. Mike said there were a couple of items that we would be thrilled to see on the menu, and that was his Lasagna and the fan favorite: the red sauce that everyone who ever ate at the Italian Villa loved.
When my editor approached me to let me know Mike was officially reopening, I wanted to do a big piece on him and his new place; but after meeting with Mike and his new chef, I realized that he wasn’t as interested in a piece about him as he was about his new place and his very talented new executive chef, Amanda Cusey.
Chef Amanda spent some time here in the states developing her skills before making a serious move to Surrey, England, to get her Cordon Bleu training from the Tante Marie Culinary Academy.
During her time in London and Ireland, Amanda cut her teeth, gathering all the knowledge she possibly could to advance her skill set. She made an impression on the owner of Fiorentina, Kristian Burness, and his executive chef, Brendan Ward.
Fiorentina has been voted one of the best restaurants in Dublin, and Kristian Burness is known for spotting new talent. Amanda worked for Fiorentina for over a year, and when the opportunity to take over as executive chef came about, she jumped at the chance. She held that position until Fiorentina was bought out by Oliver Dunne, the youngest Irishman to ever win the Michelin Star, and who has maintained that star ever since.
Chef Dunne had Chef Amanda run his Italian pop-up restaurant he put into place, while he changed the place over to his new restaurant, Beef and Lobster.
Chef Amanda has a love for making Italian food, and, with the new changes to the restaurant, she felt it was time to come back to the states. Her father is an engineer who took a position in the Lake Charles area, so, lucky for us, she came to our neck of the woods to share her talents.
I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking shop with her. Most of our conversation was really just sharing our love of Italian food, because that’s what I began with as a chef, and I have over 20 years of experience in cooking Italian food. It’s so refreshing to find someone as young as Amanda who can sit and really talk knowledgeably about Italian food.
Amanda had three dishes she wanted to share with me, and all three were the bomb.com.
Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream. The outer shell is solid mozzarella, while the inside contains stracciatella and cream, giving it an unusual, soft texture. The rest of the dish consisted of arugula, sun-blushed cherry tomatoes, candied pecan, pomegranate vinaigrette and house-made crouton crostinis.
The dish was so light and refreshing that it felt like you could have eaten it all day and never filled up. I love pomegranates, and that was the first time I’d had them as a vinaigrette. Trust me, I will be playing with recipes at the house to try and replicate it.
The second dish was a gambertti, which consisted of a linguini pasta sautéed with nduja, jumbo shrimp, shallots, garlic and white wine. Nduja is a particularly spicy, spreadable pork salumi from Italy. It is typically made with parts of the pig such as the shoulder and belly, as well as tripe, roasted peppers and a mixture of spices.
The flavors on this dish were through the roof, and the flavor that the nduja brought to the dish is hard to describe. I am 100-percent positive that the people from this area who love meats and sausages will find this dish to be very impressive. The shrimp were not too hard or too soft — simply perfect.
The last dish was a dessert that is one of my two favorite Italian desserts — a panna cotta. Amanda made a rosemary panna cotta. The rosemary gave a very earthy flavor to the cream, and Amanda served it with a blueberry and raspberry compote. The panna cotta was like putting a piece of heaven in your mouth with every bite. Amanda was still working on the plate design for this dish, and I was beyond flattered that she was so receptive to me making a suggestion on the placement of her ingredients. Some chefs’ egos won’t allow for even the slightest bit of input from an outside chef.
The restaurant was still being organized, so I wasn’t able to get good pictures, but I could tell from what I was able to see that this is going to be a classy, but still casual, location that will cater to just about everyone. Mike stated that, with places like 1910 and Calla setting the bar, he really wanted to bring Lake Charles another great place to eat. I’m telling you, he and Chef Amanda will truly be a force to reckon with downtown. Please get out and show this place the love it deserves.