You might say that Tommasina Mamola has Marina running in her veins. Her family has been in the restaurant business in the Valley for 26 years and counting with Portofino’s Ristorante Italiano (the location in Surprise now have different owners), San Remo Ristorante and Franco’s Ristorante. Her family is from the old country, Naples and Palermo, Sicily. The family’s dream began in Brooklyn with Giovanni’s Pizzeria. Tommasina struck out with her own dream 3 years ago, opening up the very successful West Side spot, Lakeside Bar & Grill. There she has a great following and clientele serving up great dishes and specials every night of the week. While Lakeside is a slight departure from her strong Italian roots, earlier this year that was remedied with the opening of Twisted Italian with her managing partner, Michael Helbig. Here, they serve up all Italian dishes, but as the name suggests, with a twist. While you may find familiar-sounding dishes, they each will have their own fair share of tweaks.
Take the Bruschetta appetizer ($8.75 on the dinner menu) for example. This dish is such a delightful surprise. It comes on specialty dough, which happens to be the same dough you’ll see if you order a pizza. What’s the twist? It’s drizzled with honey and topped with Gorgonzola. It is absolutely amazing and most certainly, for me, worth the hefty drive!
If you are looking for a new twist on old classics and want to try a great new restaurant, Twisted Italian will be worth your efforts. The inventive and thoughtful dishes paired with the dedication of the staff to ensure that you have a great experience, are sure to get you Twisted! Also, if you’re in the area make sure you check out Lakeside Bar and Grill.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Michael, who has developed the recipes and created the attentive and informative staff.
Read my interview with him below:
Taryn Jeffries: What inspired you to be a chef?
Michael Helbig: You know the word ‘chef’, I think confuses a lot of people. Especially these days, I think its over-used with all of the cooking shows that are on and you look at all the noted chefs that around now. You look at things like Hell’s Kitchen and all the other cooking shows that are on and I think people really don’t understand what it means to be a chef and that is, essentially, to lead a kitchen. So one thing that I think that we really pride ourselves on here is the fact that we have normal people that like to cook and I am amazed at what a true chef can do. They can open up a refrigerator door and make something out of nothing. That’s really not what I do or really how we do things. I like to look at what people like to eat and the flavor profiles, the more popular flavor profiles, and so I have been able to fashion different recipes. There are many things, like the Chicken Florentine – you can have that at 10 different restaurants and get 10 different tastes. It’s a classic dish, and of course we have it here, but then there are other items we have, like the Twisted Ravioli. Now, I am not saying that no one has ever tried it, but it is something that is pretty unique to our restaurant.
I think when we finally gave mental birth to Twisted Italian, that was something that we really discussed a lot, you know, “what are we going to do with the flavor profiles?” We’re not going to compete with Olive Garden, Carrabba’s, Macaroni Grill, Buca or the other traditional mom and pop places. It’s the same reason we don’t have spaghetti and meatballs on the menu, and that is that no one can make those better than Momma; it’s a comfort food. It’s comfort food and those are the things that we really stayed away from. We didn’t want to do Manicotti and spaghetti and meatballs; those are great dishes, but those are for other people to do. We want to be different.
Taryn: So where do you think you get your inspiration to put these twists on your dishes?
Michael: Well, a lot of it really comes from if I picked a region out of Italy – you know people will ask me, ‘what region of Italy do you cook?’ I would say probably more Northern than anything. Northern has a fuller flavor, more heavy spice, and more black pepper. I don’t want to be misconstrued in that I am going around to other restaurants trying to pick apart dishes, but more so just to have really good dishes and ‘think how I would do it differently?’ or you know mix up the flavor profiles and put a new twist on it. And, you know I have grown up on the restaurant side; I’ve been in it for over 20 years and I’ve been influenced by a lot of people that taught me a lot of things – from flavor profiles to what goes with what.
Taryn: So have you had other restaurants before or were you saying that you have just worked in others?
Michael: No, I’ve been on the corporate side. I was a managing partner for Outback/Carrabba’s, you know, the Big 4 restaurants, before they left the Valley, and then I worked at a Country Club in Colorado growing up.
Taryn: So what would you consider to be, from this menu – this concept – what would you want to have known as your signature dish?
Michael: All of them! I would say the Bruchetta, Twisted Chicken Pizza, the Sorrentino and the Twisted Ravioli.
Taryn: Are there any particular reasons why?
Michael: For one, they get my palate. Like I said, I really like that little twinge of sweet & spicy. I feel like when I have a dish like the Twisted Ravioli with those different flavors in it, I’m getting 2 for the price of 1, kind of. You know, you can go anywhere in the Valley and get a nice roasted salmon, a nice cut of salmon, put some herbs on it and spices, pan sear it, and then finish it off in the oven along with some roasted vegetables. Is it an exciting plate? No. Can they get our Florentine anywhere else? No. You’re not going to see that Florentine on some other menu like you would see the salmon anywhere else – you know. Even at Lakeside, it’s there, it’s down at Chili’s – you can get it anywhere.
Taryn: So it’s more for approachability? If someone comes here with someone that’s more adventurous with what they want to try… you still have a fallback, so to speak?
Michael: There’s actually a lot of truth to that. That’s why we have this (spaghetti) on there. Is it a good meat sauce? It’s a really good meat sauce. Is it great? I can’t say that I’ve ever really had a great meat sauce, to be honest with you. I mean, it is what it is.I mean, it’s ground chuck and the flavors are really good; it’s a nice dish – it’s really good. I’ve had many people, many people say to me, ‘wow, what a great fresh dish this is.’ You know they can go through the menu and say – this one and this one and this one – but this, I can get somewhere else. It’s just one of those things, it’s a safety issue. That’s why it’s really important when servers come out on the floor, with us being so new, is to ask them what do you like to eat, what flavors do you like. Because they might have never heard of Marsala, so it may freak them out or something so they might default and say, you know I recognize this. I know that and if someone wants spaghetti and meat sauce – God Bless ‘em, I’ll give them a hug and tell them to come in once a week and eat, that’s great. But, if we go one more step, let’s take care of our people and find out what they really like. That makes me go back to the passion side of it and when Twisted Italian was born and we all sat down and talked about what we wanted out of it and that is: a lot of people walk in the door and they think they’re going out for Italian and they have in their head what that means and we want to give them something totally different than what they thought they were going to have. I’ve yet to see an Italian restaurant that makes the same kind of sauce that we use for the Twisted Pizza. So that’s why when they come in and they think that they are going to have spaghetti and garlic bread, and they have the Bruschetta or something like that… or thinking they are going to have their side salad with Ranch or something. We give them a great salad with strawberries and Champagne vinaigrette and they’re blown away. And you know, the reason that’s expected is that’s what everyone else is doing.
Taryn: That’s great that those people that come in expecting to have one thing are ultimately given the opportunity to go out side of that ‘comfort zone’ and try something new and a little radical – and that the wait staff is sensitive to that and helps to guide them.
Michael: And that’s a very new thing, to have the servers ask the customers questions because they are so used to answering questions instead of leading the questions and the diners.
Taryn: And, you know I think that alone, taking the food out of the equation, to have a server that is going to take that extra step to guide you is certainly going to leave a mark on your patrons.
Taryn: Were you at all intimidated partnering with Tommasina, with her family’s strong Italian roots and long restaurant history?
Michael: No, because we wanted something totally different than what the experience had been at Portofino’s. And, coming from Buca for the past 6 years, this was a very different turn than what I was used to. Being around that very traditional, over-the0top garlic, really basic Italian food. There’s not a lot of change.
Taryn: So then how did you meet, how do you know each other?
Michael: Tommasina used to work for me. We met each other years ago when I was with Carrabba’s and then she went back to Portofino’s and I went back to Las Vegas and opened up a store there for Carrabba’s. Then, I moved back here to be the managing partner for Buca, for a little over 6 years. I just dropped in one day to see her at Portofino’s and then ended up helping them get Lakeside opened up and we partnered on this… and here we are. It’s always been a good friendship.
Taryn: So do you find that on your off-time that’s what you like to do – mixing up new flavor combinations?
Michael: Well, no – not necessarily on my off-time. I really like to do that here. You know if we’re a little bit slow, I’ll hang back there and mix up something or if there’s a vendor that comes in that’s trying to get their foot in the door, I’ll ask them ‘what do you have right now that’s really unique?’ We made a sauce before that had Dijon mustard and dry vermouth and we used it with some dried croutons – it was pretty good stuff. There are things that are a constant work in progress that I am still tinkering with.
Taryn: So do you see in the future, are you doing that with other dishes?
Michael: Rethinking stuff? Absolutely. I always kind of tweak it to the point of, I don’t know how true it is, but I heard one time from a chef that had said you really never know something until you have made it a thousand times. I think that’s a little over the top on it. But, you know opening up here – we started testing dishes in the kitchen on December 27th and we opened up the business on January 3rd. Now on December 30th and 31st, we did training and like a pre-opening trial, and being a small privately owned place it’s not like you have deep pockets. So, it was a dash to open, but we’re constantly tweaking stuff and testing things and taking all of the feedback we get and make the appropriate changes. If I start to get some really consistent feedback on something then, you know, we need to make a change. We need to listen to our people. All of our servers, when they come in for their check out we always ask, ‘how was it tonight, how was the food, what were the customers saying?’ – Whether it’s positive or negative we want to know.
Taryn: Do you have plans to add things like weekly specials or anything like that?
Michael: The one great thing about being in a location like this where we have, we’re surrounded by a really good community and a lot of great people, is that if you make great friends – I think your commitment to regulars is to keep your menu fresh. Because no matter how good your dishes are you can’t eat them every day. You know – and it keeps me fresh, too. Food keeps changing, and we have barely scratched the surface with the 30 or so menu items that we have. There are just so many things that I want to learn how to do –I don’t want to eat the same thing every time and I’m no more important than anybody else.
Taryn: Have you found that in the short amount of time that you have been open that you do have regulars?
Michael: Yeah, oh yeah. We have seen a few people that are coming in 2-3 times a week. It’s very easy for people to come in the first time; it’s a lot harder to get them in the 2nd and 3rd time. Once I see that someone has come back for a second time, I’ll thank them for coming back and let them know that we appreciate that. And I let people know, if there is ever a time that something isn’t right, let us know and give us the opportunity to make it right. We’re not infallible, we are going to make mistakes – but we just want that feedback to be able to make things right. For the most part people have been really great. You get your little blasts on Yelp, and some of those are certainly justifiable and some aren’t sometimes. I will say that the community has accepted us with open arms, saying we have been watching and waiting for you. And within that watching and waiting, you don’t want to disappoint people.
To learn more about Twisted Italian, visit eattwisted.com
Twisted Italian | 9940 W. Happy Valley Pkwy. #1080 | Peoria, AZ | 85383