By Martha Keeffe  

When Gisela Pett, the co-manager and head chef at Culina Mariana Café (located at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse) plans her menu, she does so with passion—and a European twist. “My mom was an excellent cook and loved cooking. From her, I learned to love working with food,” says Pett, who grew up in Bavaria but has called Wisconsin home for the past 17 years. “I wanted to do what I loved and that was cooking.”

Using fresh meats and as much locally sourced organic produce as possible, Pett is not only committed to supporting local businesses but also aims to offer the best tasting meal to each and every customer. “To do this, it is important to know what is and what isn’t in season,” says Pett, who carefully plans her dishes around available produce. “It’s amazing how many things you can do with squash!” 

Eager to sample some of Pett’s autumn fare, my husband and I reviewed the menu as we were warmly welcomed by our waitress, who suggested the daily special of grilled pork topped with pecan-smoked pork shoulder, grilled onion and Swiss cheese. A salad of fresh greens and a side of roasted red potatoes completed the dish as a perfect remedy to the cold weather outside. Without hesitation, my husband ordered the special with a cup of butternut squash soup, and I ordered the schnitzel sandwich with a cup of the butternut squash. The soup was creamy, rich and flavored with a rich blend of herbs and spices that Pett adds to create interest. “I use all my own recipes, and everything is made from scratch,” says Pett, noting that the soup changes on a daily basis. “From French onion, to grilled vegetable, to tomato parmesan—whatever I get from the organic farmer is what I use.”

After a warmup on our coffee, we finished our soup and were presented with our entrees, which were generous in their portions and very attractively displayed. My sandwich was crispy and tender, made with seasoned, breaded pork loin and served with lettuce, tomato and red onion on a baked pretzel roll smothered in a mayo-mustard sauce. The meal provided a feeling of “home-cooked” satisfaction. Topped with maple balsamic dressing, my husband’s salad was flavorful and fresh, the potatoes buttery and tender, and the pork extremely tasty. “I can’t find anything wrong with anything here,” he said of his meal, adding that he wouldn’t be opposed to trying other favorites like the Reuben, chicken salad sandwich or anything on the breakfast or Sunday brunch menu.

“So you know, we do serve wine and beer,” said Pett, as she rewarded us with a delectably flaky, made-from-scratch slice of apple strudel with vanilla ice cream. “And, on the first Sunday of every month we offer a German-style buffet with Schweinebraten, red cabbage, mashed potatoes and schnitzel, and pastries. It is my mission to welcome our customers to our beautiful atmosphere, wonderful staff and the best food we can offer.” 

For more information, visit www.guadalupeshrine.org/cafe, search for Culina Mariana Café on Facebook or call (608) 788-8400. The Culina Mariana Café is located at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 5250 Justin Road in La Crosse.