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Bella Italia still Nebraska’s choice for Italian gourmet
We have a friend for whom a high culinary adventure is adding a slice of processed cheese to his turkey burger. A solidly chicken-and-beef kind of guy, he has little to do with seafood, save Mrs. Wright’s frozen fish filets, and can’t imagine how people manage to actually eat exotic things like mustard, olives and dill pickles. The very idea of a grilled balsamic Portobello mushroom, a leg of lamb in mint sauce or clam linguine is enough to make him blanch.
Then there are people like Shadi Aboushady, owner and chef of the Bella Italia restaurant in Cozad. A gourmet of the first order, Shadi eagerly awaits two annual trips to New York — where he was a mid-town chef for 20 years — for the opportunity to visit friends, get really fresh fish and sample some of the more obscure delights to the palate generally not found in Nebraska.
Except, of course, at the Bella Italia.
Who cooks for Shadi?
Shadi was born in Alexandria, Egypt and grew up learning to cook all over Italy, resulting in a wide and interesting repertoire with French, Italian and Middle Eastern influences. Home, though, is in Turin (Torino, as he says it), Italy, capitol of the Piedmont region and some of the best food in Italy. Over 160 types of cheese and famous wines like Barolo and Barbaresco come from this region bordering France and Switzerland, as do truffles and outstanding pastries, especially chocolate ones.
He learned to cook professionally at a café on the Piazza San Carlo, generally acknowledged to be the most beautiful in Turin, then moved to New York as a young man where he honed his skills in the kind of New York restaurants that get written up in the Zagat Guide.
With immodesty typical of great chefs, he said of the restaurants where he’d worked, “Where I go, people come.”
If he goes out to eat here at home, he sticks to plain fare – steak or fish without sauce.
“I went to a chain steakhouse and ordered the Caesar salad. It came topped with bleu cheese!” he snorts, his disgust evident.
The Foodies return
This is not our first visit to the Bella Italia, nor, indeed, the first time we’ve written about it, but we were looking for a holiday treat we were almost guaranteed to enjoy, and we’d heard there had been changes inside and out since our last visit.
When Becky Aboushady, Shadi’s wife, lovemate, restaurant manager and reason his restaurant is in Cozad instead of the Upper East Side, sat down with us, she explained the improvements.
“With some help from Cozad Economic Development, we put on a whole new front façade, with new stucco, awnings, insulated windows and signage,” Becky said. “We have new staff and new staff training, and, of course, Shadi is always adding new things to the menu.”
After seven years, the business has become “steadier” as its reputation has spread. Becky said they now regularly get customers from Lincoln and Omaha, and that recently a limo bearing the mayor of Grand Island and her party came to Bella Italia to celebrate the mayor’s birthday.
As we perused the menu, we were reminded why.
What we didn’t get
We didn’t order the Ravioli Alla Purro Nero, seafood ravioli sautéed with fresh crabmeat, shrimp, butter and fresh herbs; nor the Tuna Mustardello, Yellow Fin Tuna sautéed with mushrooms, sweet red pepper, black olives, fresh herbs and white wine Dijon mustard; nor the Beef Tenderloin Au Poivre, seared with black pepper and sautéed with wild mushrooms in a poivre sauce of cognac, Tabasco and sherry.
More’s the pity we had but one stomach apiece.
We did, however, get a nice bottle of Raven’s Wood Zin and an appetizer of grilled balsamic Portobello mushroom, which was elegantly simple, but all the tastier for it. We also ordered the Caesar salad, a must-have if you visit, made fresh (the way a Caesar should be) with anchovy, egg, Dijon and shaved (not grated) parmesan. No bleu cheese here.
For our entrees we ordered the Grouper Parmesiana, which was sautéed in white wine, lemon and nutmeg and topped with crabmeat and melted parmesan cheese; the Clam Linguini which came with succulent clams swimming in a butter-garlic-parsley sauce; and a marinated, grilled Leg of Lamb with a delightful fresh mint sauce.
“I miss Norwegian salmon”
When the dinner rush had passed, Shadi came over to our table to visit. He’s tall and imposing and speaks with an accent that clearly identifies him as “not from around here”. You only need speak with him for a moment to understand where he’s coming from – he’s all about the food.
After seriously and solicitously asking after each of our meals, he told us his biggest frustration was the difficulty getting fish to his liking.
“I have a special order with Sysco,” he said. “They do their best and I change the menu depending on what I can get.” He sighs. “I miss the Norwegian salmon; I miss the fish market.”
He spends a lot of time sourcing food up to his standard, fetching a can to show us the special imported Roland Dijon extra spicy mustard he uses to mix with his Caesar dressing.
We talked about food and restaurants until nearly all the other patrons had left. We hadn’t intended dessert – heaven knows we’d had enough to eat – but Becky insisted we have a slice of tiramisu – one of Shadi’s particular specialties. The na
The true wonders of Bella Italia would be sadly lost on our friend, although I daresay he would have enjoyed the spaghetti, but for a more refined palate, Bella Italia is a Nebraska treasure, and one we’ll be back to again.