June 30th, 2020 2:33 PM
Chef Gaetano Di Benedetto is bringing big changes to Gaetano's on Madison Street.
Oak Park Eats Editor
"I think we should expect a second wave of the virus," said Chef Gaetano Di Benedetto matter-of-factly. "I hope not. I understand restaurants are hungry, but it is most likely going to happen."
Di Benedetto acknowledges his fine dining restaurant was doing a fairly robust carryout business, but two issues plagued the meticulous chef.
"My food is made to go from the kitchen to the customer," said Di Benedetto. "A car ride is worse than a slow server."
More important than carry-out concerns, Di Benedetto had very realistic concerns about COVID-19. The majority of Gaetano's regular customers are between 40 and 95 years old and part of the high-risk demographic.
"I have a 17-year relationship with these people," said Di Benedetto. "They are like family to me and I would prefer they stay home and stay safe."
Di Benedetto admitted he felt as if his career had all but disappeared in the midst of the pandemic. Interaction and education are key ingredients in his cuisine; sharing a piece of history or a cooking method as people enjoyed a dish that was missing from his carry-out business.
"When this situation took out the creativity and interaction from my cooking, I was left with something that felt cold," said Di Benedetto. "And then I'd put food in a plastic container. People were supportive of the business, but it wasn't the same."
Faced with viral resurgence worries, concern for vulnerable customers and an uninspiring carryout business, Di Benedetto acted swiftly. He shuttered his namesake restaurant and began reimagining his culinary future.
The chef settled on transforming his fine dining restaurant into a gourmet food market that blends his love of cooking and science.
Local Italian food connoisseurs should expect Chef Gaetano's Artisan Foods to make its initial debut in the next month and gradually expand over time. The gourmet food market will maintain the coveted Italian Q certification indicating quality and authenticity.
The market will be divided into two distinct sections. The back of the shop will be a devoted USDA inspected meat production facility. Meats, sausages, salamis, and assorted charcuterie produced in the space will be sold in the front of house market and used for distribution to other markets. Di Benedetto has also been researching vegan meat production for several years and will produce those items on site as well.
"Pork is referred to as the meat with one hundred different flavors so salami making is about finding the harmony of meat flavors." said Di Benedetto. "My vegan meats and cheeses are more scientific, and this space will be a launching place for all these products."
The front of the house will feature a salt cave for dry aging prime meats that can be cut to order in the gourmet meat market. Counter service will include house made pastas and sauces. An assortment of artisan cheeses from Italy, Spain, France, and the United States will complement an array of house made spreadable cheeses, cheese mousses and pates.
A bakery will flank the counter service area where Di Benedetto intends to offer focaccia and his signature pizza. The pizza dough, made from organic ancient grains, will go through a 50-hour fermentation process to develop complex flavor and an airy texture before baking in a new state-of-the-art pizza oven. Pizzas can be cooked to completion on site, but customers will be encouraged to purchase par cooked pizza and finish baking it at home.
"Our pizza will be a hybrid between a Roman Pinsa and a Sicilian pizza," said Di Benedetto. "The dual cooking method allows the dough cook at a low temperature before crisping it up at high temperature at home. That way it will be perfect every time."
Additionally, the front of the house market will feature a wine shop and Di Benedetto's line of house made liquors like limoncello, pistachio-cello, and coffee-cello.
Di Benedetto envisions a colorful grab-and-go market and intends to keep his staff small at the outset; he is working to employ people affiliated with Housing Forward, the non-profit focused on housing issues.
"Finally, this will be a combination of all my 43 years of experience," said Di Benedetto. "It's cooking plus science and I feel inspired again."
The bakery section, including pizzas, will be the first section of Chef Gaetano's Artisan Foods to open in the coming weeks.
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