I have been visiting Benny’s restaurants for the past 25 years, beginning in 1988 with Café Venezia, which we all knew as Café V. But from the very first time I visited Gamba Ristorante opened in March of 2006, I noticed that the clientele had suddenly become much more attractive. Seemingly overnight, there were beautiful people at the bar.
After renting space for 20 years, Benito Gamba wanted to do something unique with his first building, developing it from the ground up. The result is a 10,000-square-foot circular structure topped by a copper roof, encompassing an 80-seat dining room, a 200-seat event space, a bar and a kitchen, all four buildings spiraling around an interior courtyard. At the heart of the restaurant is a private wine room with storage for a thousand bottles of wine. It’s a very special place to dine and a treasured getaway fit for private groups and making an impression.
While something of an enigma compared to surrounding corporate structures, the building, designed by architect Jordan Mozer, represents a Calabrian village, Benny's southern Italian birthplace. Inside the restaurant you encounter amorphic shapes and undulating lines, hallmarks of the architect’s design palette. Mozer's other designs include Chicago’s Cheese Factory at the foot of the Hancock building, Vivere in the Italian Village, St. Germain and Cairo, a fun bar at Superior and Wells back in the 1980s.
Benny was born in Altamonte, a small hillside town in southern Italy. He came to the United States in the mid-1970s, not yet speaking much English, to Calumet City, to work at The Cottage, a legendary restaurant back in the 1970s. The Cottage, under the direction of the late, great Chef Carolyn Buster, was one of the first places where people could experience truly fine dining outside of downtown Chicago. Famous Chicago financial mogul W. Clement Stone frequented The Cottage for lunch on random weekdays ferried by a chauffeured limousine.
The three beautiful Gamba daughters seem to be everywhere these days—Michaelle, Krystle and Angela—enjoying working the family business and assuring Benny’s legacy. His wife Hilda, who he met while working at Cricket’s in Chicago, is still frequently on hand to greet diners and see them to their tables, as she has done for many years. Michaelle and Angela are the social media experts in the family, posting images of food, people and spaces in the restaurant on Facebook and Instagram. Michaelle created a web site for the restaurant and sends out e-blasts regularly. When Michaelle was 21, Benny sent her to bartending school. She has worked full-time with her father ever since---the past 14 years.
Benny is proud of his team, including Executive Chef Michael Rueth from Munster, Simon Floyd and Bill Potts, the executive chef team for lunch. In the front of house, waiters Scott Crawley and Franco DiQuattro have been with Benny since the Café V days.
Michael Rueth started at Gamba three years ago. He came in at the “bottom of the totem pole,” he says, and worked his way up. “Benny gives me a lot of freedom. It’s unusual for someone my age to come up to the executive chef level and at a place of this quality.”
Mike had been living in California, where, he says, “people think differently about food.” He has been urging Benny to use more locally-grown, organic ingredients and shops for produce at Green City Market in Lincoln Park. He orders artisan cheeses from California, using the same source for truffles from Italy and France, where they have “just any product you can imagine.”
“These acquisitions are essential to Gamba Ristorante,” he says. “They’re unique products that you can’t get anywhere else in our area.”
Benny is serious about attracting 30-year-olds to the restaurant. Sushi has been on his mind for some time now. Benny acknowledges that people have changed their way of dining out. They like fresh stone crab, oysters, fresh fish, smaller portions and sharing things. Mike believes that many younger people have palates that are just as sophisticated as older diners. He says that he has younger friends who are willing to experience an eight-course tasting menu comprised of the oddest things that he has in the kitchen.
Both he and Benny recognize that Gamba has acquired more of a laid-back atmosphere. People are dressing more casually, but, as Mike notes, some of the younger people will spend $300 for dinner and they’re wearing jeans that cost the same. Benny is getting used to changes—like Michaelle’s new music selections (less Frank Sinatra)—but he draws the line at baseball caps, which he sees as a sign of disrespect when worn indoors.
CHANGE AND STAYING THE SAME
“My old-fashioned way of thinking has to give way to a new way of reaching people,” Benny says, “younger people with new energy.” But he doesn’t like answering machines, making people listen to options when they call a restaurant, “press one for this and two for that.”
“I like doing business face-to-face; I distrust the reviews on Facebook.” He laments that he gets bogged down with the financial side of the business when he would rather be focused on the basic business—good food and service. With 30 people on the payroll, he has a lot of mouths to feed before the doors open each day. He wants his people to make a good living. “I don’t want to be right,” he says. “I want to do the right thing.”
And what about the food? Gamba is not your typical Italian restaurant, but at the core there are still Benny’s favorites: “Good bread is #1, wonderful cheeses, Pasta Amatriciana (pancetta, Tropea onions, and plum tomato sauce).” Branzino (Mediterranean Sea bass) is his favorite fish. Dover sole, de-boned at table, and veal tenderloin infused with truffle oil are his other favorite entrees (mine too). One night a customer thought there was a gas leak confused by the scent of truffle oil rising from her veal.
Customer favorites include fresh seafood, red-nosed grouper, halibut and risotto. There is a new menu of small plate appetizers such as Octopus Carpaccio (try it, you’ll like it), gnocchi w/Yukon gold potatoes, roasted cauliflower with house-made giardiniera and garlic crunch. There are sushi selections, pizza, and lower price points with small-plate versions (“tastings”) of classic dishes like the veal tenderloin and filet mignon. The whole idea is to put a twist on his brand—promoting the lounge and courtyard, offering a bar menu with a sushi tasting including fluke with blood orange and Serrano pepper, sweet potato tempura, salmon mousse, refreshing ceviche.
FANS AND FAMILY
Benny has countless fans that have been with him so long that he did their children’s christening parties at Café V when they were born and their wedding receptions at Gamba 20 years later. “It takes two to make this relationship happen,” he says. “You have to make people happy.”
Among his loyal longtime clientele, Nancy and Dr. Len Anglis say that Benny’s restaurants have been “our perfect date night for the past 21 years. It’s an oasis where we can relax and thoroughly enjoy every moment.”
Good food is extremely important and service is even more important because you can cook at home after all, Benny observes. “Good service is having everything at the table you need without noticing it.” Marcia and Will Glaros are another couple who have been patronizing Benny’s establishments for more than two decades. “We think it’s one of the best in Northwest Indiana,” Marcia says. “We have enjoyed hosting private parties at Gamba, including a bridal shower, a baby shower, and several corporate events. We’ve also had his talented staff cater parties at our home, providing wonderful food for as many as 60 guests.”
“Our industry is fun,” Benny says. “If I came back to life, I would want to do this again. I learn about people and I learn about myself.”
Banker Chris Morrow says, “Benny embodies what is right not only in America but one of the best things in Northwest Indiana. Not only did he work to raise a family, he worked to chase his dream of owning his own business. I am honored to know him and his family. He is family.”
To me, Gamba is still the place to be and be seen. The slogan on the new menu says “Where friends meet,” and it’s true about this place. It reminds me of the ending of “Moonstruck,” one of my favorite movies, where everybody raises their glasses and toasts, “Tutti via! Bicchiere in mano! Alla famiglia! To family!”