All about family

Villa Romana, by Narelle Muller.

Villa Romana is all about family.

When George and Helen Papagelou decided to open Villa in 1999, they chose arguably the best location in Cairns to create a space where families could congregate, eat, drink, talk, laugh and connect.

Even if you dine at Villa alone, you’ll get caught up in the feeling of ‘la famiglia’. The Villa staff will welcome you warmly, the food will feel familiar and the vibe will feel like home.

It’s entirely intentional.

“We wanted to create a casual, bustling, fun place where friends drop in,” says Helen. “A trattoria where people can meet and relax, enjoying excellent home-style Italian cooking. That was George’s vision.

“Villa makes room for everyone. We want all our customers to feel special - kids, grandparents, everyone. And we always try to meet their needs, within reason. We will alter dishes to requests. We have created a gathering place for all.”

Opening 364 days of the year is no small feat (they close Christmas Day). Add to that the fact the couple also run the hugely successful Yaya’s Greek restaurant, directly above Villa, on a busy Cairns Esplanade corner and the juggling seems even more phenomenal. When you then realise Villa opens for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s obvious this is an undisputed labour of love.

It is this deep devotion to food that drives George.

“Wonderful food is his passion,” says Helen.

But it doesn’t have to be fancy to be great.

“We eat simply at home, often village food, recipes handed down through the generations, like my grandmother’s thick tomato soup with chunky meatballs. It’s Greek comfort food.”

Born in northern Greece, George met Helen, who is also of Greek parentage, in Melbourne in 1985.

Helen recalls it was his cooking that won her over.

“We hadn’t long met and he cooked veal scaloppini for me. I think that’s why it’s still a favourite for me, to this day,” Helen remembers.

She too was brought up around the kitchen, with parents who migrated to Melbourne in the 1930s to run a fish and chip shop, later moving into milk bars.

The couple married in 1988 and have worked in, and loved, the industry ever since.

While George works with his chefs, led by head chef Jae, to create menu ‘specials’ revolving around what is optimal and seasonal, the pair are firmly committed to tradition.

“Some places try to modernise traditional dishes,” Helen says. “We believe in consistency. There are some things you just can’t change. We’ve built a loyal following over the years and it’s consistency that keeps locals coming back, year after year.”

Helen’s favourite dishes are simple fare done to perfection: for entrée it’s the calamari; for main, any pasta dish and, of course, for dessert, the tiramisu.

Adamant their staff contribute hugely to the success of the business, she says there’s a core of workers who’ve been with them for decades.

Breakfast chef Donna has worked for the Papagelous since their early days in Cairns. “We have created a family of staff and of customers,” says Helen.

The Villa team have seen Cairns families grow over the years, as they’ve fed them their delicacies, heard their stories and enjoyed their hugs.

It's important to both Helen and George to be on site and seen often.

“We’re very hands on, George more so at back of house and me buzzing around cleaning glasses, or whatever needs to be done,” Helen says.

“It’s about supporting the team, ensuring we know exactly what they need. You have to be physically involved. If you’re not on the ground, you don’t know how things work, whether the kitchen needs new saucepans, or whatever.”

Making two local restaurants must-visits for holidaymakers, as well as regular haunts for locals, is a testimony to the couple’s vision all those years ago – a dream to bring people together, forging memories to be cherished for years to come.

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