HOURS: Wednesday – Saturday, 5-9 p.m.
Closed Sunday – Tuesday
Closed the last two weeks in February
It’s the January blahs, and I’m feeling dull like a cornfield in winter when a building as blue as the Mediterranean Sea jumps out at me in downtown Cozad, Nebraska. It must be Bella Italia. My view brightens, and my taste buds perk up in preparation for the Bella Italia cuisine. Becky Aboushady, who manages the front of the house, greets me at the entrance, and invites me into the heart of Bella Italia, the chef’s kitchen.
The kitchen spills warmth, and I pause in the entry to enjoy the staccato beat of the chef’s knife as he minces Italian parsley. Water gurgles on the kitchen’s commercial black iron stove in preparation for boiling pasta. (I feel like bowing before the grandmother of all stoves.) I smell yeast rising, garlic swirling in the Italian stainless steel food processor, and I hear Chef Shadi Aboushady’s voice booming, “What are you doing?” as he supervises the lone kitchen assistant.
A swirl of sounds and motion accompany the slicing, chopping, baking, mincing, roasting and pounding. It seems 10 tasks await them before opening time and all preparations run full steam ahead.
Chef Shadi’s training began in a fine restaurant in Rome. “I started in the kitchen at age 12 where I washed dishes for 400 people, no automatic dishwasher, all by hand. I paid my dues,” he says. “In two years, I was promoted from dishwasher to work with the chefs, and then I became the sous chef. I worked in fine restaurants in Tuscany and northern Italy. I worked with Master Chefs, recognized chefs and talented chefs.”
In 1980 Chef Shadi immigrated to New York. He worked as a chef in 5-star restaurants in New York where he met and cooked for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The mayor became a fan of Shadi’s food. “He liked good food too, and he was Italian,” Chef Shadi says.
Becky vacationed in New York where she, by chance, walked into Chef Shadi’s restaurant and was impressed with his wonderful Italian dishes.
“As chefs do, he stopped at my table to greet me as a guest and inquire about the food and the service,” Becky says. “A spark of romance was kindled at that first meeting, and of course, I returned every day of my vacation in New York to eat another of Shadi’s dishes and to see him.” A long distance romance led to their marriage and a return to Cozad, Becky’s home. They found a suitable building for the restaurant, and in 2003 Bella Italia was founded.
The cuisine is Italian, meaning, as Chef Shadi says, “Fresh herbs, fresh vegetables, everything fresh, meat and fish, we make the dressings, even the mayonnaise. We don’t buy bottled or canned dressings.”
“With one exception,” Becky adds with a smile, “we buy Dorothy Lynch dressing, a Nebraska icon.”
Chef Shadi orders extra virgin olive oil imported from Italy. “We buy Checco, Italian imported pasta, always use real butter,” he says. “We make gluten free pizza because a customer asked for it, and the gluten-free pizza is growing into a favorite. Our seafood is all fresh, never frozen. We order sea scallops from Boston. Also fresh Atlantic salmon, tuna, prawn shrimp – all sustainable.”
“We cook by order, nothing premade,” Becky adds. “Customers at one time were impatient with the time needed to make every plate to order, and now they understand and sip a glass of our fine Italian wines, and munch on the hors d’oeuvres.”
I nod and look forward to my favorite appetizer, Norwegian smoked salmon with red onion, capers and black olives accompanied by a sparkling glass of Frascati, a dry white Italian wine.
Chef Shadi’s signature dishes
Linguine Frutti di Mare (Mayor Giuliani’s favorite dish) – shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, in a light tomato white wine sauce
Penne Al Vodka – chicken, fresh garlic, vodka and spicy tomato cream sauce
Penne Bergamesca – chicken, sweet red peppers, spinach, garlic, cream, and smoked mozzarella cheese
Favorites of the house
- Four Cheese Risotto – Italian Arborio rice, Gorgonzola cheese, Fontina , Gruvera, Parmesan cheese and a white wine sauce
- Pizzas, New York style , made by hand including dough and sauce
- Homemade Tiramisu
- Caesar salad
- Grilled Atlantic Salmon with Raspberry Sauce
- Fresh Atlantic Scallops
- Smoked Salmon – Norwegian smoked salmon with red onion, capers and black olives
Menu cooked to order
The Bella Italia menu is extensive and offers more than 30 freshly cooked-to-order dishes including grilled salmon, ribeye, leg of lamb, and veal chops Florentine, risotto, veal, seafood and chicken. The menu also includes appetizers, salads, desserts and seven different fresh pizzas.
“When we returned after one year’s leave, we tried to shorten the menu, and our customers wouldn‘t allow it,” Becky says. “People come in, and all they ever get is the salmon with the homemade balsamic vinegar glaze. We returned to the full menu.”
“A chef’s work is hard and often too much work,” Chef Shadi says. “Our customers return again and again, and they order the same dish every time, and every time it tastes exactly the same. Be consistent. I feel satisfaction in cooking because the plates we serve make people happy. It feels good to please our customers.”
However, the Aboushadys are thinking seriously of selling their restaurant due to health concerns. Chef Shadi is willing to train and teach his methods and share his recipes with an interested buyer and aspiring chef.
“We make a comfortable living working four days per week and serving our loyal customers who live in the Cozad region and beyond,” Becky says. “Bella Italia draws patrons from east as far as Omaha and west into Denver.
The restaurant has been a good choice for them, and they are hoping to find someone with that same passion to carry the restaurant forward into the future.
Chef Shadi shared his recipe for Chicken all Scarpariello with Nebraska Rural Living. Try it in your own home.
Chicken alla Scarpariello
Sauteed with garlic, roasted red peppers, fresh rosemary in lemon white wine sauce
2 chicken breasts
1 roasted red pepper (see how to roast a red pepper below)
Flour for dusting the chicken
Dry white wine
Homemade chicken stock
Roasted bell pepper
- Pound chicken breast with mallet to 1/8 inch
- Dust chicken breasts in flour
- Melt 2 spoons of butter in a sauté pan and lightly brown the chicken on each side
- Add ½ cup white wine, and simmer 2 minutes to concentrate the flavors of the wine
- Add ½ cup chicken stock and squeeze juice of ½ fresh lemon into the sauce
- Lay the roasted red pepper over the chicken breasts and simmer to reduce the sauce by half
- Sprinkle with minced Italian parsley
Roasting red peppers: Roast the peppers in the pre-heated 450 degree oven for about 25 minutes, or until the skins are completely wrinkled and the peppers are charred. Rotate the sheet if necessary for even cooking. Let the peppers cool for a minute or two, and then remove from the baking sheet and place in a bowl.