Casa Mia: A hidden gem serves Italian on the lake

Before you can enjoy eating at Casa Mia, you have to find it. Pointing out that the restaurant has a waterfront location doesn’t really help. Not situated on the Gulf, Casa Mia is tucked away on Marco Lake, inside the Lakeside Inn, and even old Marco hands have been baffled in the quest to track down this hidden gem.

Once you are inside, though, the water outside adds charm to the cozy dining room inside. “That’s what sold me on this place–the lake view,” said co-owner Tony Brock. “I couldn’t picture running a restaurant with just four brick walls. You need a view. I love to see the water.”

Tony’s love of the water is not surprising, considering that he and his wife Marie, have owned marinas on Lake George and the Erie Canal. Their last restaurant was on the Hudson River, in their marina between Albany and the Catskills. “We’ve got 70 feet of glass. The wildlife is amazing here,” he added. The location also affords Casa Mia a long, covered and screened outside dining area, stepped down so not to block the view of diners inside.

While the view is nice, the big attraction at Casa Mia is the food. The restaurant bills itself as an Italian steak house, but the emphasis is on the Italian. Angie Skoglund, of Marco Island, and her guest, Alexis Vela, chose to dine outside on the deck and both opted for veal, piccata and marsala, respectively. “I’m so glad we found this place,” said Vela. “I’ve got to bring my husband here–he loves osso buco, and I can tell these folks know veal.”

Chef Sunil, “Charlie,” Prabhakar, although a native of New Delhi, India, has 27 years of Italian cooking under his belt, so to speak. He worked previously on Marco Island at the Marriott and Regina’s, before joining Casa Mia when they opened in February.

Fluent in English, Italian, Hindi, German and Spanish, which is, “useful for communicating with some of the kitchen staff,” he said, Prabhakar is truly an international chef, who insists on beautiful presentation, as well as mouth-watering taste in the dishes he serves.

Ask the chef about osso buco, the classic veal dish that is a signature item at Casa Mia, to see how seriously he takes his craft. “We use a premium quality, hand-cut veal shank, braise it in white wine, onion, celery, carrots and fresh herbs, then roast it in a slow oven in a red plum tomato sauce,” he said, gesturing for emphasis. “The finished product just falls off the bone and melts in your mouth.”

Casa Mia’s selection of Italian seafood dishes includes shrimp scampi, zuppa di pesce and stuffed shrimp; large, butterflied Gulf shrimp, stuffed with crab, sautéed in a light lemon white wine sauce, and served with saffron risotto and a vegetable medley of zucchini and peppers. The vegetables are crisp and tender, and the shrimp is succulent and tangy.

Catch your own dinner and the chef will cook it to your taste, a boon to fishermen and their wives. Casa Mia is happy to accommodate special orders and non-menu items.

Perhaps the most popular dish at Casa Mia is the five pasta plate, pairing five examples of pasta with Alfredo, Bolognese, aiolo e olio, marinara and pepperoni sauces, with the choice of meatballs or Italian sausage. “This dish was wonderful,” said Pamela Broad, of Marco, dining with her husband Gary. “I am a connoisseur of meatballs, and this combination was sensational.”

Gary ordered the veal piccata, which he reported was, “as good as I’ve ever had anywhere.”

Pam saved her greatest praise, though, for the dessert. “Omigod, this Napoleon,” she raved. “I’m giving a wedding shower, and I was going to make the desserts myself, but I talked to Marie and we’re all set.” They also complimented the attentive service.

Both the service and the desserts are the responsibility of Marie Brock. In addition to managing the front of the house, she bakes all the tempting pies and cakes that sit on the dessert cart to entice diners. The selection varies from night to night, depending on her whim and what ingredients are freshest. On a recent Saturday, the offerings included blueberry cheesecake, Napoleons, fruit-filled bread pudding, blueberry lattice pie, crème brulee and the number one seller, Marie’s Mile-High New Orleans carrot cake.

Tony is also hands-on in the kitchen, his duties including grilling all the restaurant’s steaks. The kitchen functions harmoniously, with the Brocks granting broad leeway to their executive chef, and each team member performing their tasks with no hint of a broth spoiled by too many cooks.

“You have to be on the same page,” says Marie. “We hired (chef) Charlie before he ever cooked for us. I do a lot of business with my heart, instead of my head. When he does a fantastic job, you know you’ve struck gold. We have the same objective–feed people fresh and delicious, and they go away happy.”

The goal of the restaurant, said Marie, was to, “keep prices reasonable for excellent food. It ties into the name: Casa Mia–my house. We want to make people feel at home.”

A complete filet mignon dinner, with an 8-ounce filet, potato and vegetable, costs $21.99, and you can get a 16-ounce New York strip dinner for $22.99.

“We’re off the beaten path. I knew at this location it would be difficult to get people in the door, but once they do, they come back. When you start seeing people coming back again and again, that’s a good sign.”

Once you find it, you’ll agree; all the signs for Casa Mia are good.

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