The passion for cooking took Luis Hernandez from the cocina (kitchen) in Guadalajara, Mexico where he helped his mother and grandmother prepare family meals to Chicago when he was 16. But instead of continuing to make the classical dishes of Mexico, Hernandez instead started working in the kitchens of Italian restaurants, learning to mix pasta dough and roll out perfect strands of fettuccine, linguini and thin sheets of lasagna and ravioli, slow cook soups and sauces to marry the tastes, grill meats Italian style, often with extra virgin olive oil and a scattering of fresh herbs and, among his favorites, creating luscious Italian desserts.
In some ways, explains Hernandez, both Italian and Mexican cuisines are similar in their use of fresh picked ingredients like herbs, tomatoes, garlic and onions. Many dishes such as pasta sauces (Italy) and moles (Mexico) are slow simmered, their tastes building in complexity as they cook.
“Mexican food is a spicier,” says Hernandez, “but both are very flavorful and special.”
While working in Chicago, Hernandez met and worked for Joe Scalzo, who had moved from Southern Italy to study international business at Loyola University but instead decided to pursue his own passion for great, authentic food served in a convivial setting. Scalzo opened two Italian restaurants in Chicago, Piazza Bella and Via Carducci, before moving on to start Ciao Bella in Schererville. Having mastered both traditional and contemporary Italian cuisine, Hernandez was onboard as executive chef when the restaurant was launched four years ago.
Open for lunch and dinner, menu offerings at Ciao Bella include a selection of risottos including Risotto di Mare --Italian Arborio rice “Risotto” with shrimp, calamari, scallops, mussels, and clams and traditional pasta dishes like Lasagna della Casa, house made pasta sheets layered with Bolognese sauce, ricotta, tomatoes, fresh basil and mozzarella. Meats like veal, beef and chicken are prepared in classic ways such as Italiano, Parmigiana and Milanese but the menu also offers more contemporary takes on Italian cuisine as well such as their pan seared Ahi Tuna and grilled asparagus on fresh baby spinach, accompanied by a creamy sweet garlic sauce and crispy fried artichokes.
Though Hernandez, who says his outside of work hobby is cooking, still enjoys the foods his mother makes including cochinita pibyl, chunks of pork wrapped in banana leaves and then slowly roasted in the oven, when he cooks at home it’s much more likely to be Italian with maybe a few Mexican dishes on the side.
“And when I go visit my family in Mexico,” says Hernandez, “my mother cooks Mexican dishes and I cook Italian.”