- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

COZAD, Neb. (AP) - Rudy Giuliani is probably crying in his linguine.

And so are a lot of customers across Nebraska.

Mohamed Aboushady, Giuliani’s favorite chef when Aboushady worked in New York City, has put up a “for sale” sign on his restaurant in his adoptive home in central Nebraska because of health problems.

Unless chef Aboushady and his wife, Becky, find a new owner for Bella Italia - and that’s been a big if so far - an oasis of fresh and authentic Italian cuisine in this rural farming area will end.

The Omaha World Herald (https://bit.ly/1TPdV9Z ) reports that since the restaurant opened in 2003, Bella Italia has drawn a stream of customers off nearby Interstate 80 and from cabins on area lakes for dishes Aboushady has refined over decades of cooking at restaurants across Italy - from Tuscany to Torino - and later in New York City and up and down the East Coast.

“The chef there is superb,” said Pat Lamberty, a semi-retired district judge from Omaha whose family has a vacation home at nearby Johnson Lake. “It’s probably our favorite Italian restaurant, certainly as good as any in Omaha.”

“He’s great at making sauces,” her husband, Lou, said. “And his bread, you’d die for that.”

But since undergoing heart surgery in 2014 that involved six bypasses, the chef who everyone refers to by his nickname, Shadi, has had less stamina. The couple had already cut back on their hours and had been looking to sell, but the sale has become more urgent.

“He’s tired,” said Becky, who met the 65-year-old Shadi during a vacation in New York City.

The couple have listed the restaurant with both local and regional real estate agents without any bites. Shadi has offered to train a new chef in the finer points of Italian cuisine. That includes verbal instruction (he doesn’t write down his recipes) on how to produce the risotto, veal and seafood dishes for which he’s become known. Giuliani’s favorite was linguine frutta de mare, a dish featuring shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari in a light tomato white wine sauce.

“I want to keep it as it is,” Shadi said.

“I bleed in here,” said the fiery and exacting chef as he stood in his tidy kitchen. “I put all of my effort in here.”

Selling a restaurant in a small, rural town, particularly a unique, tradition-rich eatery featuring a highly trained chef, is a tough job, according to those in the business.

Part of the problem is inadequate population, according to Ed Sabatka, the owner of Uncle Ed’s Steakhouse in Grand Island and a first vice president of the Nebraska Restaurant Association.

“It’s a real challenge to have enough people to support a restaurant,” he said. “Owners try their hardest, but it comes down to sheer numbers.”

Sabatka knows. His first steakhouse was in Broken Bow, population 3,500. Seven years ago, he opened up in Grand Island, which has 12 times the residents and a steady stream of conventions and special events, including the State Fair.

Sandra Bappe of the Cozad Chamber of Commerce said residents in Cozad, population 4,200, are devastated by the possibility that Bella Italia may close.

The restaurant has put the community on the culinary map. Some out-of-state customers, Bappe said, plan their trips across Nebraska to coincide with Bella Italia’s hours, which are now limited to Wednesday through Saturday evenings.

The eatery was recently named one of the “20 Restaurants You Have to Visit in Nebraska Before You Die,” alongside landmark restaurants like the Bohemian Cafe in Omaha, Dish in Lincoln and Ole’s in Paxton.

“It is so unique, and he’s so very particular,” Bappe said of Bella Italia. “He just can’t get a chef to come to a small Midwestern town. That’s his big issue.”

Betty Sayers of Holdrege, a longtime customer who has written about Bella Italia in her blog, Nebraska Rural Living, said potential buyers might not realize that they can earn a living in communities the size of Cozad, even cooking fancy Italian food.

Shadi insists on maintaining his original recipes as they are, because customers want it that way. But he’s also added gluten-free items, including pizza, to his menu over the years.

“He has a good system going,” Sayers said.

What makes Bella Italia so good?

“Everything is fresh,” said Shadi. And all the ingredients are top notch.

To demonstrate, he quickly displays bags of the De Cecco pasta he imports from Italy, then a can of the extra virgin olive oil he also imports. Soon, he’s carrying over a plate holding a giant prawn the size of a lineman’s thumb.

“Have you ever seen them so large?” Shadi demands.

A question about steaks prompts another rush into the kitchen. Shadi emerges with a slab of rib eyes that he personally ages a month to enhance the tenderness.

His balsamic vinegar is as black as crude oil and has the consistency of molasses, the result of hours of reducing. The intense flavor explodes in your mouth.

“I buy the best quality of the food,” Shadi said. “I give you the tastes you have in Italy, a long, long time ago.”

“He takes great pride in his cooking,” said his wife.

That was evident when they first met in 1996. Becky Aboushady said she was so taken by the handsome, Egyptian-born chef and his dishes that she returned to his Manhattan restaurant every day during her trip to New York City.

A long-distance romance ensued. They were married in 2002, and the couple, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York (of which Shadi had a front-row view), chose to settle in Nebraska.

Becky also knew the restaurant business: Her family had run the Airport Inn restaurant in North Platte for several years. The couple bought a former Chinese buffet just off Highway 30 in Cozad.

A tradition was born.

But how long it will remain is in question.

Bella Italia was closed for several months in 2014 and 2015 as Shadi recuperated from heart surgery. There were doubts that it would reopen.

But it did 11 months ago, with a smaller menu.

That didn’t last long. Shadi said customers kept demanding their old favorites, and by last fall, the old menu was back with seafood risotto, veal piccata and chicken francese.

“People enjoy my food,” Shadi said. “Cooking is an art. Not everyone can cook.”

If the couple does find a buyer, they plan to relocate to a larger community, probably Lincoln or maybe Omaha.

And, Shadi said, if his health permits, he’d like to open a small, 30-seat restaurant in his new home that he would open a couple of days a week.

“I would serve the best quality food,” he said. “You’re going to feel like a king.”

___

Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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