Be it your law practice, your favorite athlete or sports team, your relationships, or a restaurant, consistent quality is the true measure of any endeavor. Anybody can have a good day and hit a bull’s-eye once and a while out of sheer luck. To keep hitting that target repeatedly is the challenge, especially with the inevitable bad day sprinkled in.
For approximately 20 years, Benito and Hilda Gamba have hit bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye. Starting with Café Venezia in the late 1980s, and then branching out with Venezia Grill in the 1990s, the Gambas delivered top-notch Italian cuisine. That tradition continues with Gamba, a custom-built facility that combines the better of their past two restaurants in Merrillville, Indiana.
A mid-morning court appearance in a neighboring county placed me in perfect position to join my lifelong friend, Mark Thiros, of Merrillville’s Thiros & Stracci, for lunch at Gamba. Any occasion to visit with Mark is a good one, and one-on-one over a quality two-hour lunch is about as good as it gets, even sans wine. But let’s talk about the experience.
As I said, this is a custom-built facility that, at first blush, seems a bit oddly shaped. It is a round building with the restaurant and bar areas flanking the outside portions of the perimeter while nestled in the core is the kitchen and banquet facility. Modeled after upscale European restaurants, this wonderfully efficient design can manage plenty of restaurant seating along with a banquet of up to 200 people, plus about 1,000 bottles of wine storage. In the center is an open courtyard, adding to the charm of the building.
After being greeted by a smiling hostess and immediately seated, our wait-staff placed a basket of warm baguette slices on the table with rich, firm butter and a clear glass bowl of sliced Serrano peppers soaked in olive oil. While appearing intimidating, the latter really isn’t. The peppers aren’t in the oil long enough to noticeably affect the flavor, but if you wanted to add a little flair to your bread you are welcome to pile on as many peppers as you like. This touch provided a uniquely pleasant way to open the meal.
For starters, Mark ordered the split pea with mushroom soup while I chose the pasta fagioli. I’m not a split pea soup guy but my sample of Mark’s gave me pause to change my belief. The subtle mushroom flavor fully added to the rich fresh pea-based puree. My soup was unlike my native Italian grandmother’s. Hers was chicken-broth based with stewed tomatoes, spinach, beans and pasta. Gamba’s version is vegetable-broth based without tomatoes. At the waitress’ suggestion I requested fresh spinach in my bowl and after adding a dollop of the Serrano infused olive oil I nearly had a meal.
I selected the Grilled Mahi Mahi with Brandy Cream Sauce for my entrée while Mark picked the Spicy Spaghetti. Each choice was from the daily special menu or, for you Italian speakers, the Speciali Del Giorno. My dish was simple yet elegantly presented. The grilled fish was outstanding and its flavor was able to hold its own balanced against the sauce. Far too often lesser restaurants tend to overly drape a dish like this in its sauce in an effort to disguise poor quality seafood. Such is not the case at Gamba. Mark’s pasta was laced with chicken, diced tomato, crushed red pepper, garlic, olive oil and finally finished with an arugula pesto. Bright and flavorful, Mark was pleased overall with his selection and after I sampled it we shared the same criticism. The pasta was slightly undercooked, even by al dente standards. That is one small flaw that can be easily fixed so I offer no gavel reduction for that slight mishap by the chef.
Only about a mile from I-65, make this your luncheon or dining choice if you are ever in the Lake County area. Of the dozen or so times I’ve dined at one of the Gamba’s restaurants over the years, I’ve never had a bad experience. Benito “Benny” Gamba is always there, gracing your table to make sure you are satisfied. If you go, call Mark. It’s one of his favorite spots too. Gamba Ristorante, 455 East 84th Drive, Merrillville, IN. 219.736.5000. www.gambaristorante.com•
Fred Vaiana and Jennifer M. Lukemeyer practice at Voyles Zahn Paul Hogan & Merriman in Indianapolis, focusing in criminal defense. The opinions expressed in this column are the authors’.