With his wife-to-be and newborn daughter in the cozy dining space of his new restaurant, Gaetano DiBenedetto has a smile on his face as he putters with an old pasta maker, discussing rigatoni in his native Italian with one of his chefs.
“He’s been out of the kitchen for about six weeks now,” his fianceé Elena Elizondo said. “He’s happiest when he’s in the kitchen.”
Smiles have been tough to come by these last few months for DiBenedetto, who has endured a messy ending to a soured business partnership and the frantic pace behind the opening of his restaurant, Gaetano’s, while welcoming the newest member of his family. But DiBenedetto is excited again, and for hungry customers who wept at the closing of La Piazza earlier this year, that’s good news.
“I’m cooking. I’m in the dining room. I’m all over the place,” DiBenedetto said of his multifaceted role. “It’s my life. I love to make people happy.”
Gaetano’s opened quietly over the last weekend in March but already has seen a dizzying response from customers who remember the menu at La Piazza, which was on Circle Avenue just south of Madison Street. Open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only, Gaetano’s has weekends booked several weeks ahead, DiBenedetto said. A lunch menu is expected soon and regulars at the Italian eatery can expect frequent menu changes often as DiBenedetto goes to the market for the freshest fare.
Since 2003, DiBenedetto has been making a name for himself in the near suburbs and beyond at La Piazza, which was recently named one of the best Italian restaurants in the country by Zagat, a renowned restaurant guide. That restaurant’s closing was an exhausting ordeal, said DiBenedetto, in part because of a lawsuit filed against him by his former business partner.
But a judge recently dismissed the case, freeing the chef to pick up, of all things a jackhammer, and help renovate former garage space at 7636 Madison St. into a 65-seat restaurant that features an open kitchen and a wood-burning oven. What was a concrete floor capped by a metal ceiling has been rehabbed into an earthy space with cedar-paneled ceiling tiles and trendy art. The renovation took less than two months, said DiBenedetto, and was his first foray into the construction industry.
The wood-burning oven adds a new dimension to DiBenedetto’s kitchen and the chef is hoping customers notice the extra touch. Roughly 30 percent of the menu will be prepared using this ancient method, adding flavor to everything from breads to fish.
“Flavor-wise, it’s amazing,” DiBenedetto said. “It becomes a personal thing between who is cooking on the oven and the oven.”
The flavors of his acclaimed menu at La Piazza have been carried over, he said, and with a smaller dining area, the kitchen won’t be as taxed.
“We’re excited,” Elizondo said. “This is a lot more of what he wanted to do in the first place.”
Laurie Kokenes, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce and Development, toured the restaurant the day before it opened. Last-minute installations were still being done, but it was easy to see, she said, that DiBenedetto had emerged from a “rough couple of months” and reconnected with his calling.
“He was very proud of what he did at La Piazza and what he’s done at the new restaurant,” Kokenes said. “He loves what he does and it’s so obvious that he loves what he does.”
Forest Park almost lost DiBenedetto to Chicago’s South Loop, where the chef was eyeing another location for his new restaurant. But after working for several years in the village, DiBenedetto said, he has a history here.
“I’ve been here five years,” DiBenedetto said. “I’ve built a big following over here, so I didn’t feel it was right to betray people who helped me in the business. I have a lot of friends now.”