On Saturday, the buzz about Gaetano DiBenedetto, the Forest Park chef often in the news more for tensions with his restaurant spaces than raves for his culinary passion, was all good. One student in his Cinco de Mayo class – a cross-village to-do with Francisco “Paco” Lopez, Oak Park’s version of a celebrity chef – thanked the duo for “coming to our neighborhood and making it a better place.”

For four hours, starting at 10 a.m., the two Madison Street chefs from opposite sides of Harlem Avenue wowed 33 students – some of whom drove in from far-flung suburbs – with what happened when a Mexican meets an Italian in the kitchen.

Gaetano, equal parts showman and locavore whiz, reigned over portable burners and cutting boards in the front dining room of his namesake place at 7636 Madison as he shared his latest round-up of students with Paco, the bear-hugging greeter and molé evangelist at New Robozo, the Mexican restaurant at 1116 Madison in Oak Park.

The $65 cost of the class covered instruction, tastings of the dishes, and sips of all the suggested adult beverages.

Sombreros were distributed along with three different flavors of margarita. Throughout the proceedings, the chefs fielded questions, toasted with their margaritas and exchanged high-fives. The audience ate it up. When Paco was asked what flavor margarita he preferred, he said, “The kind with tequila in it.”

They first prepared an appetizer of scallops. Gaetano said that seafood like scallops can lose its flavor if packed in water. He recommended buying dry scallops and dusting them with flour to protect their delicate texture.

Meanwhile corn soup simmered on the burner. Gaetano used roasted corn to make the soup. He said he believes all vegetables should be roasted, because it gives them a crispy texture and brings out the sweetness. Speaking of sweet, large portions of Mexican brown sugar and cinnamon sticks were added to the soup, along with dried chili peppers and coconut milk.

Paco said that “normal” Mexican food in this country can be “greasy and heavy.” He maintains it should be light, combining sweet, sour and spicy elements.

Gaetano then showed the class how to make cilantro oil. He chopped up the cilantro stems and all (“If you buy it, you use it all”) placed it in boiling water, then “shocked” it by putting it in a bowl of ice. He blended it with oil and strained it through cheesecloth.

Gaetano loves poppy seeds, so he added toasted poppy seeds and sesame seeds to the soup to give it crunchiness.

As each course was prepared, a familiar pattern emerged – delicious aromas preceding explosions of flavor. Next up were fish tacos featuring stone bass filets. Gaetano said that stone bass is extremely expensive and difficult to find. These were followed by cactus tacos. After Paco tasted a taco, he uttered his trademark, “Oh, my God” and acknowledged the thumbs-up from students.

The final two dishes were Mexican lasagna and a stew made with baby back ribs. For the lasagna, a mixture of ground beef, chorizo and spices was spooned into pasta shells, topped with grated cheese and slid into Gaetano’s wood-burning oven. The stew was served over roasted potatoes. Gaetano said that he made the stew chewy to make it more Mexican.

Paco admitted that Mexican and Italian cooking are radically different but that Gaetano, who specializes in fusing Italian dishes from disparate regions, was able to bring them together.

Their fanship is mutual. On Gaetano’s menu, there’s a dish with Paco’s name on it.

For the dynamics between this duo, the waiting list was almost as long as the class list. This was the second class the two chefs have run. According to Gaetano, they’re planning another for later this year. In the meantime, his classes run every other Saturday. For details about the next class, call 708-366-4010.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.