“Every day is a memory,” says Michaelle Gamba, manager at her family’s restaurant, Gamba Ristorante in Merrillville, as she waves a friendly hello to six men arriving for lunch, regulars she’s known since childhood. When asked if she has any favorite memories to share, Michaelle has a hard time pinning down just one particular moment or person. She recalls a lifetime of delicious smells, great food, and the familiar, cherished faces of chefs, restaurant staff, and customers considered family and dear friends.
Even before I sit down to talk to Michaelle at Gamba Ristorante’s cozy bar, I feel warmly welcomed by the uniquely inviting design of the architecture which, like the food and wine served inside, is reminiscent of and true to the Gamba family’s Italian roots. Michaelle, one of owner Benito’s three daughters, explains how these roots span multiple generations and countries to bring Gamba’s signature authentic Italian cuisine and hospitality to Northwest Indiana.
The Roots Run Deep
Great food and warm hospitality are in the Gamba family’s blood. It all began some forty years ago, when Benito Gamba left Altomonte, a small hillside town in southern Italy, and arrived in Chicago to work at some of its finest establishments including The Cottage and Cricket’s, where he met his wife, Hilda. Though they call the Region home, the Gamba family makes frequent trips to Italy to visit members of Benito’s extended family and his childhood friends.
Benito, or Benny as he’s affectionately known by friends and family, opened his first restaurant, Café Venezia, in 1988, which was quickly followed by Venezia Bar and Grill. Yet when the opportunity came to combine the two different restaurants into one restaurant in Merrillville, Michaelle says that he jumped on it. “Dad met someone a long time ago who showed that opening a restaurant in Merrillville would be a great opportunity,” she recalls. In addition, she says they had such a good reputation and following, and they wanted to stay in the Region. Gamba Ristorante opened in March 2006. “This is what he ended up doing for us,” she says, referring to the expansive, elegant space.
The secret to the restaurant’s success is a winning combination of great food, comfortable classiness, warm hospitality, and endearing familiarity. The recipes, expertly executed by chefs Joe Flores, William C. Potts III, and Michael Rueth, are based on Benito’s family recipes. The authentic Italian cuisine, Michaelle explains, “is fresh in its flavoring, and everything, including our handmade ravioli and sauces, is made from scratch.” It’s not just the food or wine selection, though, that keeps devoted patrons coming back; it’s the familiarity factor that’s just as authentic as the cooking. “We’re family-owned, and the regulars who come here become family,” she says, adding, “People like seeing a familiar face. They like knowing that they’re always going to see one of the family members when they come to this establishment.”
The Family That Serves Together Stays Together
In addition to owner, Benito, and his wife, Hilda, daughters Michaelle and Krystle are managers and Michaelle’s daughter, Cynthia, recently started bartending at the restaurant. (Benito and Hilda’s youngest daughter, Angela, resides in California, but comes home to visit in the winter.) Michaelle says that, even though working with family has its moments, “It’s fun. It’s long hours and long days, but we all have a good time. We all know our job duties, and when someone’s not here, we can trust that things will get done. We’re a very close family.”
A Lifelong Gamba Dream Actualized on the Amalfi Coast
In September 2016, the Gamba family returned to their ancestral country when Krystle’s lifelong dream of getting married in Italy was realized. Michaelle says, “It’s been her dream since she was five or six years old, but at first she was thinking of getting married here. We talked her into sticking with her original dream, and she fell in love with Italy’s Amalfi Coast.”
Accompanied by an intimate party of forty people, Krystle walked down the stairs of her hotel to the church, which Michaelle recalls was part of Krystle’s dream wedding. After the ceremony, Krystle walked back to the hotel, accompanied and serenaded by musicians. “The dinner, being surrounded by the ocean and mountains, the view of the cliff, seeing the ocean from the infinity pool; it was amazing,” Michaelle says.
And Yes, There’s a 'Sopranos' Connection
Gamba Ristorante does have a connection with the famous fictional Italian-American family, the Sopranos, but, unlike the relationships portrayed on the television show, it’s one that doesn’t break any laws. Actor Federico Castelluccio, who played Furio Giunta on The Sopranos, was the featured guest of honor at “An Evening with Federico Castelluccio,” which was held at Gamba Ristorante in August 2016. Proceeds from the event benefited the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides scholarships to spouses and children of military servicemen and women killed or disabled while serving.
Michaelle explains that the event came about through Benito’s acquaintance, John Kostidis, CEO of Badass Brandz, who was acquainted with Castelluccio. She says that the event, which honored Fred Halpern of Albert’s Jewelry, promoted Kostidis’s workout brand—which seeks to put a positive spin on being bad, shown in its tagline “Be Bad Do Good”—while raising money for the Folds of Honor Foundation. “We had a great turnout for the event, around 120 people,” Michaelle recalls.
The Gambas are heavily involved with fundraising for a variety of nonprofits, including the March of Dimes, with funds raised from a friendly Signature Chefs competition, held in November 2016, going to the organization. The friendly competition between Benito and Josh Halpern, of Albert’s Jewelers, centered around making the best Italian slider. Michaelle laughs as she recalls her dad’s initial reaction to the challenge: “My dad was like, ‘What is an Italian slider?’”
Treasured Gamba Family Traditions
Michaelle’s favorite family traditions are their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals. Growing up, the traditional Christmas Eve Italian seafood feast comprised eleven courses, though it’s smaller now, she says, “maybe eight.” She admits, “All that food was overwhelming when we were younger.” The Christmas Day meal is Osso Buco and pastas with meatballs. “It’s how they used to do it in Italy.”
Hilda, Michaelle, and her sisters clean while Benito cooks, but Michaelle says that she and her sisters try to watch him cook so that, one day, they can continue the tradition. She also learns from watching the chefs, whom she says intimidate but inspire her with their culinary school training and expertise. “I’ve learned all my cooking tips from watching the guys and my dad.”