By Andy Warrener
The Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
Buongiorno and buonasera greet any customer coming into the front lobby of Villaggio’s Restaurant at 102 Flagship Drive in Lutz.
Giuseppe Mascali, owner, chef, manager and host, took over the restaurant in 1999 when it was a 70-seat, 2,000-square-foot dining room. Now it is a 6,000-square-foot, multi-room time capsule that can seat up to 160 guests.
Italian charm is what oozes from every nook and cranny of Villaggio’s. From the harp player to the wine cellar to the antique cappuccino machine, Villaggio’s is like a time machine transporting diners back to a finer time on another continent.
Unassuming from the outside and nestled in the front of the Village Center in Lutz, Villaggio’s delivers an authentic experience from the moment a customer walks in the door.
“It’s a mission keeping the tradition alive,” Mascali said.
Villaggio’s features a small bar in the lobby as one walks in, a handsome formal dining room, the DaVinci banquet room used for overflow or private events, a cork room called Lala Land with an 8-foot diameter lazy Susan table that seats 20, a wine cellar and even a patio dining area.
The whole place has an old-world vibe to it where diners can relax and forget the outside world.
“We put coverings on the walls, carpet on the floors, so it’s very quiet,” Mascali said. “We want people to slow down, smell the food, take that first bite and just be comfortable.”
To aid in this setting, Mascali has made sure there are no televisions or clocks on the walls. Mascali disdains what he sees in many restaurants when a table full of people sit down together and all break out their electronic devices.
“We want less Internet and more Cabernet,” Mascali said.
If the atmosphere hasn’t taken you away yet, just wait until 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday when Jennifer Euliano takes the stage with her harp. She has been playing at Villaggio’s the last four years.
Mascali followed no script in creating the Italian dining experience.
Mascali grew up in Torino, Italy, where he was first exposed to cooking for groups of people while serving in the military. It was there he met head chef and longtime friend Ricardo Ciabatti.
Ciabatti, who Mascali calls his right hand, was actually Mascali’s boss when he first came to the United States in 1989, which is ironically the very year Villaggio’s opened under Vasco Ferraro.
Ciabatti hired Mascali to work in the kitchen at Donatello’s on Dale Mabry Highway. From there, Mascali helped open Café Paradiso, Primadonna. Mascali worked at Romeo and Juliet as a dishwasher at Franchesco, Café Amaretto. By then, he was working as a chef and began developing ideas to set off on his own.
“My American dream came true,” Mascali said.
Mascali took over Villaggio’s, brought Ciabatti in and hired who he calls his left hand, head chef Jimmy Castillo. Castillo is from Columbia, but has made a full transition to authentic Italian dishes.
“In Columbia, tomato sauce is ketchup,” Castillo said.
Castillo is no novice with Italian food. Castillo has been working at Villaggio’s for 11 years, starting out as a dishwasher. The chef tandem ensures that there is always a top chef in the kitchen, and oftentimes two of them.
The secret to great Italian fare, according to Mascali, is simplicity.
“Every time you taste something, you want to taste (no more than) three elements,” Mascali said. “So many ingredients they put into modern dishes it overloads the palate.”
Mascali was allergic to tomatoes as a child, so he had to find a way to take down the acidity in his sauce. His chicken cacciatore has a tomato sauce so subtle it steps back and allows for the chicken and fresh herbs to dance on the palate in harmony, and it doesn’t stop there.
“I had the veal Parmesan, which is what I judge Italian restaurants by,” said first-time diner Kathy Butler. “It was so good. My husband tried it and said he wished he’d ordered it.”
Kathy and her husband, David, were celebrating their 32nd anniversary at Villaggio’s, and they were very pleased with their experience.
“The service is unbelievable,” David said. “I’d come here again in a minute.”
Villaggio’s is open from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. weeknights and until 11 p.m. on weekends.
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