“Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” – Federico Fellini
Italy – warmth, terra cotta hues, vigorous cuisine, and mellow wine – anyone who has visited this extraordinary country knows that Italy has a colorful way of seeping into your soul.
Mama’s Cucina Italiana at the Pala Casino Spa & Resort offers a taste of Italy, and, in its own way, seeps into your soul with its robust cuisine.
Born in Milano, Italy, Chef Luciano Cibelli, the restaurant’s head chef and founder, honed his innate culinary inclination in some of the greatest culinary regions throughout Italy, as well as in France and Spain. He then added a bit of the exotic to his knowledge and skill through chef positions in Thailand and Morocco. Chef Luciano’s varied culinary influences are evident in the inspiring cuisine that he creates and he’s been welcoming diners to Mama’s Cucina Italiana since 2003.
How many restaurants can boast of a “pasta room”? Chef Luciano initiated a pasta shop where fresh pasta of all shapes and sizes is made every day. Aside from the obvious benefit of wonderful flavor – the fresh pasta only takes two or three minutes to cook. When Chef Luciano’s mother is visiting from Milano, she quickly heads for the pasta room and “makes pasta all day,” he said with a laugh.
With money the restaurant saves from making its own pasta, Chef Luciano stocks the kitchen with other fine ingredients such as truffle oil. “We buy and use the best of the best,” he noted.
The “Caprese,” an excellent choice for a starter, is made with fresh Italian “buffalo mozzarella,” which is a soft, smooth cheese created from the milk of a water buffalo. It is served with garden-fresh sliced tomatoes and basil. The basil is pan-fried, which lends a surprisingly crispy texture. The coolness of this combination is refreshing.
The Italian word, “volare,” means to soar or fly. It was appropriate that I heard the song “Volare,” playing softly in the background when I enjoyed the succulent and yielding texture of the “Agnello” (Lamb Chops). This herb-encrusted entrée was a fascinating whirl of scents and tastes.
The meat is first pan-roasted, then finished with a mix of panko bread crumbs, garlic, and rosemary in olive oil. An enchanting Cabernet reduction sauce ties it all together with a sweet balance to the savory.
In Italy there are various wine regions and those regions are reflected in their wine list. The “Agnello” is paired with a wine from Tuscany – “il Fauno di Arcanum Toscana 2007,” which possesses rich black cherry and blackberry notes, as well as spicy tones.
“Tagliolini ai Frutti di Mare,” is a seafood dish created with saffron-flavored linguine and fresh basil along with a “Who’s Who” list of fresh seafood: shrimp, scallops, clams, cockles, calamari and mussels. The subtle nuance of saffron lends an exotic flavor; and the seafood was prepared in a tomato and white wine broth. Timing is everything when cooking seafood – and Chef Luciano has the timing perfect. The seafood was tender, especially the calamari – which is difficult to get right. The pasta, which was made just minutes before, seemed to more fully absorb the flavors than cooked dried pasta. What a dramatic and eclectic taste of the sea!
Pairing the white wine “Falanghina, Villa Matilde 2009” with the seafood dish “Tagliolini ai Frutti di Mare,” works because the crisp wine with floral and fruity notes is the perfect complement to the light seafood prepared in tomato wine broth.
Several dishes offered at Mama’s Cucina Italiana are served with vibrant vegetables and herbs from the restaurant’s own kitchen garden. Zucchini, carrots, broccoli and even bok choy are grown in two acres of land which is owned and maintained by a local farmer.
Gift wrap your culinary experience with a taste of their exquisite “Amaretto Tiramisu,” made with espresso and amaretto-soaked lady fingers layered with creamy mascarpone cheese and a dusting of cocoa powder. This is no mere tiramisu – the amaretto liqueur lends a lively flavor.
The menu item recipes are not created by Chef Luciano – he noted that he cannot “take credit” for them. “They are recipes like the ones that grandma used. Some of the recipes have been around for hundreds of years, I leave them alone – I do not change them. I just have respect for who made that recipe a hundred years ago.”
At times, though, Chef Luciano doesn’t even use recipes, especially when he gets requests for dishes that are not on the menu. “If I have the ingredients – I will make it,” he said with confidence. Those created dishes, born from a lifetime of experience, are surely flavors that will seep into your soul.
Find Mama’s Cucina Italiana at the Pala Casino Spa & Resort located at 1154 Hwy. 76 in Pala, California. Reservations are suggested, and can be made by calling (760) 510-5100 before 5 p.m. and (760) 510-4541 after 5 p.m. The restaurant is open for dinner from Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. More information, including a menu and wine list, can be accessed through the website: