Not your typical hospital food

Louis Sicona and Michael Serrano were looking for a new place to try out for lunch one day, and they wound up at Twigs Café at St. Joseph’s Hospital-North in Lutz.

“It was just a whim,” Sicona said.

The hospital, at 4211 Van Dyke Road, is near where Sicona and Serrano work, and they decided to check out its café.

That was more than a year ago, and they’ve been dining at the hospital twice a week ever since.

Serrano offered these four reasons why: “Variety, quality, quantity and price.”

First-time diners might be most surprised by the quality.

Chef Paul Finocchi, of St. Joseph’s Hospital-North’s Twigs Café, shows off a pizza fresh from the oven. (Courtesy of William J. Jack)

Chef Paul Finocchi, of St. Joseph’s Hospital-North’s Twigs Café, shows off a pizza fresh from the oven.
(Photos courtesy of William J. Jack)

The Twigs Café has daily offerings that are comparable to any hipster café or gourmet restaurant, at a much more reasonable price.

For roughly as much as a hamburger chain lunch deal, the Twigs Café gives diners a choice of delicious, from-scratch, healthy home-cooked meals at the convenience of fast-food and at cafeteria prices.

Paul Finocchi, executive chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, seems to wave his magic ladle over the food, and inventive creations poof into existence.

On any given day, employees, visitors, and anyone else fortunate enough to be around, might be treated to chicken mole, watermelon gazpacho, macadamia-crusted tilapia with piña colada sauce, tomato-stuffed flounder, Manhattan seafood chowder, green chicken chili, Caprese salad, horseradish-crusted salmon, or some other delicacy.

Finocchi, better known as Chef Paul, credits Marty Blitz, chef at Mise en Place in Tampa, for the horseradish-crusted salmon, a premium entree that sells for about $4 a serving at the hospital.

“Those are $20 entrees out in the real world,” Chef Paul said. “You go to Bonefish Grill—that’s basically the same dish that you can find at these places.”

Louisiana-seasoned fried catfish with sautéed greens and coleslaw are a staple at Twigs Café.

Louisiana-seasoned fried catfish with sautéed greens and coleslaw are a staple at Twigs Café.

Staples like fried catfish, herb-grilled chicken breast, tomato-glazed meatloaf, and baked chicken quarters return regularly, but the menu changes constantly and varies with the seasons.

“I try to stay current on trends,” Chef Paul said. “Upwards of 90 percent of the stuff I cook in-house, I buy fresh where I can. I’m always looking for what’s current and what’s trending,” such as dark leafy greens, cauliflower, or ancient grains, a few of the recent trends.

Chef Paul encourages creativity in his kitchen.

The cold salad station is an example of this, in overdrive.

Tuscan bread salad, shaved fennel and orange slices, spaghetti squash with sundried tomatoes, green beans and strawberries with lemongrass, Brussels sprouts with pistachios and honey—anything is possible at this station.

While training kitchen help for other BayCare hospitals, Chef Paul has been known to arrange a friendly competition to see who can come up with the most creative cold salad.

“It kind of gives me a good gauge to see where people are,” Chef Paul said.

People who are visiting patients, or who work at St. Joseph’s Hospital-North, aren’t the only ones who enjoy eating at The Twigs Café. (Courtesy of St. Joseph's Hospital-North)

People who are visiting patients, or who work at St. Joseph’s Hospital-North, aren’t the only ones who enjoy eating at The Twigs Café.
(Courtesy of St. Joseph’s Hospital-North)

The winners are always the customers, many of whom visit the hospital solely for the food. The hospital encourages the general public, not just staff and visitors, to dine in the cafeteria.

“I’m here for the community, not just the patients,” Chef Paul said.

Michael and Rosalie Pitch are two community regulars who frequently dine on Chef Paul’s dishes.

“The food is good and reasonable,” Michael Pitch said, looking up from his honey-soy glazed salmon.  “It’s well-cooked. It’s fresh. It’s wholesome, and it’s appetizing. He makes it look good.”

“There’s a nice variety,” Rosalie Pitch said, a grilled strip steak in front of her. “Every day he has something different. There’s a lot to choose from. You can have dinners or sandwiches—there’s a lot of food, and the workers here are very nice.”

Take-home is available, too, Michael Pitch added.

The Twigs Café buzz spread rapidly to local churches. Since Chef Paul caters prayer meetings on Wednesday mornings, a loyal flock of churchgoers, all wearing their Sunday best, can now be seen passing through the cafeteria after church services on Sundays.

Sicona and Serrano patronize the grill station regularly, where hamburgers, chicken breasts, mahi-mahi, and much more is grilled fresh, and where an adjacent toppings station is provided for customers to give their selection its finishing touches.

They both said the chicken quesadilla is their favorite meal.

Sicona especially likes the way one of the station’s grill masters prepares his chicken quesadilla.

“No one else seems to make it like him,” Sicona said.

For the Wednesday and Thursday lunch offering, the chefs usually like to show off at the “action station,” breaking out the woks and pans, cooking right in front of customers. That is when cooking can truly become a collaborative process.

Perhaps the chef is leaving out one of your favorite ingredients, but that’s no problem.

“Just take it off the salad bar,” the chef will instruct, and he’ll add it to whatever creation he is making at the time.

Serrano likes the way that all of the staff try to accommodate special requests.

“I hate to say no to anybody, especially in this environment,” Chef Paul said. “If it’s in my power, I’ll do it. And, I’ve tried to instill that in all my people. Why say no, when you can say yes?”

By William J. Jacko

Published March 23, 2016

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