If you are ever lucky enough to see Chef Sal Impastato at work in his restaurant, you will feel as though you were standing in a kitchen in rural Italy. All of your senses come alive and fool you into believing you had somehow left Lacombe, Louisiana. The pungent smell of garlic and sautéed onions, the steam from the ovens, the sound of pots and pans clanging together, the light smattering of tomato sauce escaping from the large, ancient 15-gallon pot that Sal continuously stirs and adds ingredients to almost unconsciously.
By just seeing him in action and speaking with him about his passion for food, one will learn that Chef Sal is “the real deal” when it comes to being a true Italian chef, arriving at his restaurant by 10 each morning to cook his sauce and prepare that evening’s menu, as he has for over 30 years.
When 18-year-old Sal Impastato arrived in America from Sicily in 1960, he brought with him a generations-old family tradition of Sicilian cooking. For Sal’s family, as with many Sicilian families, food was more than just a necessity, it was a lifestyle. His family made their own cheeses, olive oil and wine. The Impastato’s took great pride in the harvesting of, preparation of and, most importantly, enjoyment of every meal. Both of Chef Sal’s parents were influential in shaping his culinary personality, and this sense of tradition is what guides his cooking to this day.
Lacombe, Louisiana reminded Chef Sal of his hometown in Sicily. He also enjoyed the area’s great fishing and seafood. Chef Sal ignored people’s doubts that Lacombe was too small of a town and set up his gourmet restaurant in a tiny, 1,800 sq. ft. space where he offered a menu of homemade Italian recipes infused with authentic Creole influences.
Chef Sal is like many of the Creole Italian dishes he cooks – Sicilian roots with a healthy dose of Louisiana spice. Sal & Judy’s became the perfect reflection of these major culinary influences in Chef Sal’s life: the traditional, family-style recipes of Sicily accented with robust Creole spices and local Louisiana ingredients. The fusion of these two cuisines makes perfect sense, as they both are the creation of true “foodie” cultures for which food is significant part of society. Out of this “gumbo of cultures,” Chef Sal fashioned the cuisine that would make his tiny rural restaurant famous, Creole Italian.
Chef Sal’s menu, which as a result of sheer demand has not changed much since he opened in 1974, highlights of local Louisiana ingredients tossed into classic Italian dishes. While he has a few dishes that are straight out of any Sicilian kitchen and some that would be right at home in any famous New Orleans establishment, the best items on the menu are those that combine the best of both worlds.
A true example of Creole Italian found on Chef Sal’s menu is his crawfish and crabmeat cannelloni, which combines the classic Italian pasta dish with two popular local ingredients that are not found in Sicily. Another Creole Italian dish that uses ingredients indigenous to the area is Chef Sal’s spaghetti and oysters, a twist on the Sicilian recipe that traditionally uses snails. Chef Sal’s Crawfish au Gratin and crabmeat-stuffed artichokes are also signature favorites.
As a true chef, Chef Sal cannot pick just one dish to call his favorite, but the veal is certainly at the top of his – and several customers’ – list. He also mentions his lasagna, another high-demand item. These dishes are two of Sal’s most popular and most requested, and have been since he began serving them in 1974. Sal still has one customer who has been coming in every Wednesday for dinner for the last 32 years, always ordering either the veal or the lasagna.
Obviously, Sal’s labor-intensive process has paid off, or he would not be doing things the same way for 32 years. The success of Sal & Judy’s restaurant is evident in its loyal customer base and sizable dinner crowds, despite its rather remote location. Customers come from all over Southern Louisiana to get a taste of where Creole Italian has been perfected.
Sal & Judy’s is one of those gourmet restaurants with a neighborhood feel. The simple rural restaurant is rich in family tradition and history, from its unchanging menu to its walls lined with old black and white photos from the Impastato home in Sicily and of Chef Sal’s early days in the industry. The clientele is significantly locals and loyally returning customers, some of whom have been coming back for over 30 years. His customers just cannot seem to get enough of Chef Sal’s Creole Italian dishes.