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Chef Mike Laurenza makes his restaurant dream come true
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Man of the House

Chef Mike Laurenza makes his restaurant dream come true

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If you are an avid fan of great Italian food in South Jersey, you probably know Chef Mike Laurenza, or at least have eaten his food.

Since coming to the United States in 1996 from Naples, Italy, when he was 23 years old, Laurenza has been thrilling local diners with his authentic Italian cuisine that he learned how to cook from his father and eventually a top culinary school in Cassino, Italy.

“Cooking was in the blood,” Laurenza says. “I come from a restaurant family. It seems like everyone says, ‘I learned how to cook from my grandmother,’ but for me it was my father.”

Laurenza worked throughout Europe — Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland – before coming to the U.S., where he helmed some of the finest kitchens South Jersey has to offer, including the former Cucina Rustica and La Fontana in Margate, Girasole in Atlantic City, the former Polistina’s in Harrah’s Atlantic City and even Nero’s at Caesars Atlantic City. He may be best known for helping Carluccio’s in Northfield become one of the most successful pizza palaces and restaurants in the area.

Now, Laurenza, with his girlfriend/partner Poonam Makhija, decided it was time to open their own business: Mike’s Pasta House in Northfield.

“It’s time to work for myself,” the 48-year-old Laurenza says. “I always made a fortune for everyone else. Why not make something for myself? It has always been my dream to have my own place. When you come to the U.S., the land of opportunity, you work and work and dream big until you accomplish that dream.”

Mike’s Pasta House, in the former Naomi’s Café space, fills a void for a true Italian pasta house in South Jersey.

“Yes, there are plenty of Italian restaurants,” Laurenza says. “But when you work in this area for as long as I have, and you recognize what people want, I realized there weren’t any places that really concentrated on pasta. If you really want a place that concentrates on pasta, makes their own fresh pasta and sauces from scratch, there aren’t many choices. So that’s where Mike’s Pasta House came from.”

If the concept sounds simple, it is. Laurenza, Makhija and their team focus on quality, homemade food in a simple, comfortable setting.

“We did some renovations to make it ours, like adding a little market in front of the store, new furniture and little touches here and there, but we didn’t want this place to be fancy. We wanted it to be immaculately clean and comfortable,” Laurenza says. “We want you to feel like when you come here, you are at home. It’s casual. It’s about having a great bowl of pasta with a bottle of wine. That’s it!”

A True Pasta HouseOf course, Laurenza makes it sound easy. But anyone knows owning an Italian restaurant where pasta is made from scratch is anything but easy. But Laurenza, with the help of pasta maker Cathy Vaino of Northfield, work hard to deliver more than a half dozen forms of homemade pasta – scialatielli, paccheri, pappardelle, tagliatelle, manicotti, ravioli, gnocchi, shells and tortellini – to go along with imported pasta shapes including spaghetti, penne, farfalle, rigatoni, fettuccine, orecchiette, capellini and gluten-free pasta to pair with homemade sauces that are out of this world.

If you walk into Mike’s, don’t be surprised if you see them cranking out pasta right in front of your eyes.

“It’s about mixing and matching to create that perfect dish that you want,” Laurenza says. “We have a bunch of menu items where we give suggestions, but if you want ravioli with broccoli rabe, cannellini and sausage, that might not be what I would order, but if you want that, that’s what we make. It’s also important to have fresh pasta and bought pasta because not everyone likes fresh pasta, and some of the sauces go better with imported, bought pasta than fresh pasta. And we also don’t recommend using fresh pasta for takeout orders. It needs to be eaten fresh at the table. Making fresh pasta is a lot of work, but there is nothing like it if you do it right.”

Popular sauces ($15 to $22) include vodka sauce, peas and ham; primavera with seasonal veggies, parsley, oil, cheese, garlic; alfredo; Bolognese; and carbonara. Prepared pasta dishes ($15 to $22) include stuffed shells, lasagna or manicotti marinara; Paccheri alla Pescatore with clams, shrimp and mussels with red, white or fra diavolo; linguini and clams; and baked ziti with ricotta and mozzarella; and many more.

More Than PastaMike’s Pasta House, of course, has plenty to offer other than pasta.

The ample appetizer menu includes homemade bruschetta ($8), fritto misto ($12) with fried calamari and shrimp, mussels ($12) in a variety of sauce choices, wings ($12 for 10, $22 for $20) served mild, hot or mango habanero, littleneck clams ($12) and his famous meatballs ($10).

“The meatballs have been very popular,” Laurenza says. “They are simple but made with love. They are all beef with onions, salt, pepper, parsley and very little breading. Simple but delicious. We even make them available in buckets of 15 or 30 with your choice of sauce.”

A variety of salads include Mike’s Burrata Salad ($10) with fresh burrata, spring mix, beets, celery, corn, candied walnuts and pears; Caesar ($8) and antipasto ($11) with diced meats and cheeses; and Laurenza even offers a simple focaccia pizza ($10).

Mike’s Pasta House also offers a Secondi menu ($19, including cup of soup or small salad, bread and pasta) where diners choose a protein – eggplant, meatballs, grilled chicken, shrimp (fried or sautéed) and chicken cutlet – and then the diner chooses the sauce: marsala, piccata, cacciatore, Francese and parmigiana.

“The eggplant is very popular because not too many places make it gluten free,” Laurenza says. “It’s usually breaded.”

Mike’s ZodiacLaurenza had this crazy idea to invent sandwiches and name them for each zodiac sign.

“Maybe you check your sign, order a sandwich from your sign and you eat with a good vibe,” he says with a laugh.

Whether you are an astrological believer or not, the sandwiches ($9) will make you one. Check out the Aries (your choice of protein parmigiana style); the Leo (sausage, peppers and onions); the Libra (Angus burger and fries); the Taurus (Philly cheesesteak); and the Scorpio (chicken cutlet, sliced ham, black bean spread, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, jalapeno and chipotle mayo).

Save RoomWith all of that food, it’s hard to think about dessert, but take it from me when I encourage you to save room. That’s because all of Mike’s Pasta House desserts ($3 to $6) are made from scratch from Elsie Day, an 80ish-year-old Northfield woman who is a friend of the family and makes the desserts with no preservatives and lots of passion.

The “Amazing” ricotta cheesecake lives up to its name thanks to its fluffiness and light texture; the bread pudding is perfectly dense and sweet; and the vanilla crème brulee is about as good as it gets.

“We are also working on tiramisu because people are asking about it,” Laurenza says. “She is a gem. We are lucky to have her.”

Looking AheadLaurenza and Makhija have lot of plans for future events and menu expansions, including possibly creating dishes tableside and a front counter area full of prepared items such as lasagna and other dishes for people who are in a hurry for a quick to-go option.

“We are great partners in business and in life,” Laurenza says. “we love working with each other. She has a lot of great knowledge and ideas she brings to the table. It is a dream to finally own our own place. I can’t wait until the COVID crisis is over and everyone can come out and not have anything on their minds except enjoying great food and company … like it used to be.”

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