Italian fare with a Southern twist

When most people think about retirement, they imagine taking time to travel, finally being able to dive deep into favorite hobbies and spending time with family.

We imagine propping up on a French Quarter balcony, eating po-boys and listening to buskers serenade tourists through our golden years.

Columbia native Sebe Dale went the opposite direction.

He decided to spend his retirement doing whatever his wife, Amanda, wanted.

Amanda wanted to open a restaurant.

The couple spent months renovating the Oak Grove location for their future restaurant – laying floors, outfitting their new kitchen, transforming shipping pallets into room dividers and wine glass racks and putting a personal touch on the decor.

Just shy of a year ago, Twisted Skillet opened its doors, serving Amanda Dale’s version of Italian cuisine with a Southern accent. One year later, this new business received the most Best of the Pine Belt nominations of any new restaurant and here’s why.

Located in the Liberty Junction Shopping Center at 6414 Highway 98 West, Twisted Skillet serves lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Make yourself at home

Touches of Amanda and Sebe’s personality start at the front door, where potted plants and flowers offer a cheerful greeting.

Step inside and the host extends the same warm welcome. The Dales want you to feel at home at Twisted Skillet, and their staff has been trained accordingly.

The spacious dining room can accommodate groups of all sizes, and the space is cleverly divided in a way that makes it feel comfortable and intimate. Flickering candles invite you to lean in to the table to enjoy conversation over a shared appetizer and the unique fireplace provides a year-round glow.

It’s worth pointing out that Twisted Skillet gets something right that lots of places don’t. Volume. The house music plays at a pleasant level ensuring that while you will hear other diners around you, you won’t be party to their conversation. You also won’t have to shout at your table companions.

The hand-built bar gives patrons a cheerful place to socialize and be in the middle of the action with a swinging door that offers frequent peeks into the busy kitchen.

The bar also operates as “home base” for Sebe, who spends most of his working hours visiting with customers and making sure everyone is well taken-care of.

Drinks! Apps!

Twisted Skillet seems to have a loyal group of bar regulars, and it’s easy to see why. The staff is friendly, the drinks are tasty and the prices are right.

If you are looking for a mixed drink, the Italian Sunset is a good place to start. This colorful concoction features vodka and fruit juice, given color and a citrusy punch from the Italian liqueur Campari. It’s very drinkable without being too sweet.

Twisted Skillet celebrates Thirsty Thursdays, with $1 Budweiser, $4 cocktails, and $2 glasses of house wine. We suspect it's a pretty lively scene.

Now, if you are going to enjoy a drink, you’ll probably want an appetizer to share. Amanda and her crew offer a scrumptious array, most served from their charming signature mini cast iron skillet.

From house-made meatballs smothered in marinara with bread for dipping to Gulf Coast crab claws sautéed in garlic butter, it can be hard to choose. We went straight for Dad-Dee’s Pimento and Bacon Dip. This dish features a creamy pimento cheese spread baked hot and bubbly in its cast iron skillet, topped with a crispy shower of savory bacon. Fried halfmoons of pita chips finish the plate and are the perfect dipper for this mediumspicy dish.

Fan Favorites

Of course, if you ask around about Twisted Skillet (like we did) you are likely to hear a common refrain – “They have the BEST salad bar!”

And folks? They do.

Perfect for a quick meal, the Twisted Skillet salad bar starts you off with your choice of salad greens, including a baby lettuce mix, spinach or romaine. From there, you can pile on fresh veggies, including sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, finely chopped broccoli and cauliflower florets, fresh green peas, peppers and more.

Next is a selection of fresh fruits – berries, citrus, pineapple – and pickled items like olives and pepperoncini.

For protein, you can choose from a variety of cheeses and Amanda’s house-made tuna or chicken salad.

Top all that with your favorite dressing, crumbled bacon (not fake bits!) and croutons.

Diners can choose salad only, but go ahead and get the soup, too. During the warmer months, Amanda prepares two soups or stews daily. During the winter she ups it to three.

We sampled her broccoli cheese soup, and it was as it should be – bits of softly-cooked broccoli, carrot and potato swim in a creamy broth that is homey and satisfying without being too heavy.

The menu also includes a selection of Italian-style sub sandwiches and wraps. We’ve got our eye on The MLT – a vegetarian wrap with Portobello mushrooms, dressed and topped with a Vidalia onion vinaigrette – and the Chicken Parm sandwich, which sports a lightly-fried chicken cutlet with marinara and cheese on rosemary focaccia.

One of the more popular features of Twisted Skillet’s menu is the “Create Your Own Pasta” section. This allows diners to mix and match noodles, sauce and toppings to suit their own tastes.

Want a classic spaghetti and marinara with meatballs? Done. Bowtie pasta with creole cream sauce, artichokes, capers and shrimp? You got it.

Actually, we wish we were having that right now.

Specialties and Specials

The real heart of the Twisted Skillet menu, though, is the House Specialties. Here, Amanda gives Southern favorites an Italian spin and Italian classics a Southern flair.

Shrimp and grits served with polenta? Fettuccine topped with etouffee and a fried softshell crab? Yes, please.

We knew we had to try Best of the Pine Belt nominated Redfish Julie. We aren’t going to pass on an opportunity to have one of the Pine Belt’s favorite seafood dishes.

Readers, you did not let us down.

This dish features a generous redfish filet, grilled, blackened or fried to order. We chose blackened. This is topped with a well-made crawfish Julie sauce. There’s butter and cream, for sure, but the sauce is built with layers of flavor that accent the mild fish nicely.

This comes with choice of two sides. We recommend the perfectly-cooked and seasoned asparagus and the mac-n-cheese.

By now y’all know that if there is macaroni and cheese on a menu, we will order it and report back.

At Twisted Skillet, the mac-n-cheese has an Italian accent, as expected. Al dente penne pasta is baked in a creamy, alfredo-style sauce under a blanket of melted cheese. Just go ahead and order a portion to take home with you, because it is the midnight snack that dreams are made of.

Twisted Skillet also offers a frequently-changing menu of specials, and we were drawn like moths to the flame to their specials board. We like to try specials because they give you a good idea of what a chef is capable of outside of the constraints of the regular menu.

During our visit, the classically Italian dish Osso Bucco was on the menu and quickly on its way to our table. Twisted Skillet’s Osso Bucco was a truly satisfying dish. Veal shanks simmered until fall-apart tender are nestled on top of a generous portion of toothsome polenta and napped with a tomato-based sauce, rich with fresh garlic and seasoned well.

The kitchen crew at Twisted Skillet gets salt levels just right, which is a lot harder than you’d think. Everyone has their own tastes, so you want to get things salty enough for heavy users, but not too salty for people who take it easy with the shaker.

We appreciate a restaurant that gets it right.

Naturally, dessert

Of course you will want to try to save room for dessert. Folks rave about the Twisted Skillet Apple Pie and the Italian Cream Cake.

We did NOT save room for dessert, but for the sake of writing a complete review, we ordered the Tiramisu Cheesecake to go.

Amanda puts her own twist on the familiar tiramisu by replacing lady fingers with a crushed Oreo crust, topped with a Kahlua-kissed cheesecake filling, a giant dollop of whipped cream, and a swirl of chocolate syrup. It’s an oversized dessert, perfect for sharing with the table.

It’s easy to see that Amanda and Sebe Dale have put their hearts, creativity and hard work into bringing Pine Belt diners a menu, environment and dining experience that reflects their personalities and values.

Pay them a visit and let them take great care of you!

Long-time Hattiesburg residents Jason and Autumn Perry have done their time in local kitchens. Jason started the menu at T-Bones and is currently in the kitchen at the Keg and Barrel. Autumn and Jason created the menu at the Thirsty Hippo and are excited to work together again on Signature restaurant features.