COZAD — Chicken breast and veal cutlets sizzled as pans of homemade sauces simmered on the stove at a Cozad restaurant.
Steaming hot pasta dishes, made-from-scratch Italian rolls freshly snatched out of the pizza oven and salads drizzled with homemade dressings were quickly carried from the kitchen to the dining room where patrons sipped wine and listened to jazz.
Thirteen years after Italian- trained chef Mohamed “Shadi” Aboushady and wife, Becky, opened Bella Italia in Cozad, his tried and true dishes are still being prepared for customers to enjoy.
As of Nov. 15, new Bella Italia owners Mark and Maria Diaz of Lexington have been carrying on the tradition of serving Italian cuisine in Cozad. Their intent is to keep it that way; though, some customers feared otherwise.
“Well, there was great fear that we were turning this into a Mexican restaurant,” Mark’s brother Victor Diaz said. Victor is overseeing the front-end operations at the restaurant.
Shadi, who announced his retirement last fall because of his health, trained Mark to cook all of the beloved dishes that he created and only knows by memory, Mark said.
Mark said he has experience working in restaurants in Texas where he and Maria moved from 20 years ago. He said he has wanted to own a restaurant for more than a decade, but hadn’t had the opportunity.
“Everything is new. ... I’m very happy for this new chance in life,” Maria said. She is learning the operations in the front of the restaurant.
Mark said he has always loved to cook a variety of dishes.
“I’ve always been about all kinds of food,” Mark said. “Not only Mexican food or Tex Mex food, just whatever you know.”
“But never really Italian though,” Victor added. “My mom has always made the lasagna.”
So Shadi taught Mark his Italian recipes and the art of putting it all together, Victor said.
“Yeah, the techniques. I mean, you can have a lot of ingredients, but if you don’t have the same technique it’s not going to taste the same and it’s not going to be the same,” Mark said.
Shadi cooks by feel, Mark said, which made learning the recipes a bit challenging.
“He doesn’t measure anything out. There’s no tablespoon or cup of this,” Mark said. “It’s all in his hand, so it did get kind of tricky, you know, because his hand isn’t my hand, his feel isn’t my feel.”
“But for the most part I think we’re on the right track,” Mark said. “People are liking it.”
Larry and Jeanne Reynolds, longtime customers and friends of the Aboushadys, agree.
“Everything is good. I can’t tell any difference,” Jeanne said. “We miss Shadi because he’s our friend.” But, she added, “ His influences are still in the food.”
Shadi’s culinary influences have delighted the taste buds of former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, a fan of Shadi’s former New York City restaurant. The Cozad restaurant draws in fans from Colorado and eastern Nebraska, Victor said.
“Bella Italia has developed a cult following, if you will,” Victor said.
He added that when Shadi announced his retirement, people from Omaha were driving in to get what they thought would be their last dish at Bella Italia.
“People truly love the food. Like, there’s a almost foodie mindset, if you will. They have their favorites, and then they will also explore some of the other plates,” Victor said.
A few of those favorite dishes include the penne al vodka, penne bergamesca, four-cheese risotto and shrimp scampi, Mark and Victor said.
Within the penne al vodka dish is penne pasta imported from Italy, sautéed chicken, garlic, a spicy cream sauce and of course “the good stuff” — vodka, Mark said.
Large pieces of brightly colored shrimp are plated atop a heaping pile of linguine and white wine sauce in the popular shrimp scampi dish.
“Scampi? It’s one of my favorite seafood dishes here. ... Linguine, sauce, it’s amazing. Jumbo shrimp,” Shadi’s nephew and Bella Italia kitchen help Ahmed Aboushady said.
Five or six types of fresh pizzas are also prepared and baked in Bella Italia’s pizza oven.
“These ovens have stone in them and so these are specially made for that,” Mark said.
Also prepared in house are Shadi’s Italian desserts, including towering layers of coffee, cream and cocoa flavors in the tiramisu.
Mark continues to make his entrees and pasta dishes to order as Shadi did. Most dishes take about 10 minutes to prepare, Mark said, but as more orders come in it may take longer.
“They don’t come here expecting to be out within the hour,” Victor said. “It’s more of a three-course service.”
Mark also continues to cook Bella Italia dishes with fresh ingredients, including locally grown herbs. Shadi grew basil in the spring and summer right outside the front door of Bella Italia, Mark said, and Shadi grew fresh herbs at his greenhouse at home.
The Diazes plan to continue growing herbs and said that a local 4-H group may grow some for them.
After Mark masters Shadi’s recipes, he said he would like to expand the already expansive menu.
“Well, you know, that can’t be all the Italian dishes in the world, right? So you seek out other good dishes and put them in the menu,” Mark said.
The Diazes are also considering expanding the current hours of 5-9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Victor said they have flirted with the idea of opening for Sunday brunch, but nothing has been set yet.