When you think of the perfect Italian restaurant you most likely dream about an indulgent, delicious, mouth-watering red sauce. You salivate at the thought of a huge bowl of al dente pasta drowning in red sauce so good you want to bathe in it — are we right? Admit it, you also probably picture an elderly Italian grandma hunched over a massive pot simmering that red sauce from scratch using a top-secret recipe passed down for generations, from her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother etc. But what if we told you that the absolute best red sauce in Chicago is not made by a nonna (Italian for grandmother) hailing from Tuscany or Roma, but rather an Ecuadorian immigrant with a love of food, a culinary gift and a dream of his own classic Italian steakhouse.
Chef Arturo Aucaquizhpi might not be your traditional chef of Italian cuisine and he certainly doesn’t seem like the obvious master of an epic red sauce. But years of experience from training under the best, plus a perfect blend of ambition, a hardworking attitude and a desire to continue culinary traditions passed on for generations has made Aucaquizhpi into the red sauce king he is today.
In his lifetime Aucaquizhpi has spent a lot of time in old-school Italian-American restaurants. He first came to the United States of America when he was just 16 years old, leaving behind his home village in south Andean Ecuador. He spoke very little English and in order to help his father make rent (his mother and sister stayed behind in Ecuador until they could afford to bring them over as well) he took a job clearing tables and refilling water glasses at the Erie Café in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. The Erie Café was a small upstart Italian steakhouse run by the grandson of Eugene (Gene) Michelotti, an Italian immigrant and co-founder of Gene & Georgetti. G&G, the oldest Italian steakhouse in Chicago, founded in 1941, is undeniably a Chicago legend. It’s known equally for its old school vibe, incredible red sauce, and famous clientele (think politicians and celebrities — even Frank Sinatra used to frequent the joint.) The Erie Café featured the same Italian steakhouse staples, but in a less pretentious, more modern setting.
After just a few months Aucaquizhpi moved up from bussing tables to plating dishes and helping at the sauté station in the kitchen. And then after four years he got the opportunity of a lifetime: Mario Navarro, the executive chef at Gene & Georgetti called and wanted Aucaquizhpi to join the team of cooks to help with a recent restaurant expansion. Even though Aucaquizhpi was new to the kitchen, Navarro saw potential in the young cook. They worked together for 15 years. “He’s the only kid I teach everything I know, because I know he loves to cook,” said Navarro in Bon Appétit.
During his time at G&G Aucaquizhpi worked hard and learned all that he could. He mastered all 60+ items on the menu, took prep courses at other nearby Italian restaurants to master everything he could about Italian cuisine.
While making his mark at G&G was certainly an initial goal and a great opportunity, it wasn’t Aucaquizhpi’s end goal — he had his eye on a much bigger prize. He wanted a restaurant to call his own.
Fast forward to 2016. After 20 years of working as Head Chef at Gene & Georgetti Aucaquizhpi finally opened Mirabella Italian Cuisine & Bar, an Italian steakhouse that offers a menu with many familiar dishes thanks to his years of experience at the famous G&G, but with its own spin. Mirabella is not expensive, you can always get a “good” table, and perhaps the most notable difference: the restaurant is staffed almost entirely by Ecuadorian immigrants like Aucaquizhpi.
When Aucaquizhpi opened Mirabella’s doors a few years ago, he reached out to fellow first-generation immigrants to help get the job done. His team is made up of friends and family who had previously worked in some of the same kitchens that he had. Among his team you’ll find his brother Ernesto (a server), his brother in-law Manuel (also a server), his wife Maria (she helps bus tables on weekends), and his dad, (who sometimes helps with the dishes). Even his manager, Eddy Chiqui, is a fellow Ecuadoran.
Aucaquizhpi stays true to his roots but also puts everything he has learned to work, and it shows. His food is as good as it gets, with several dishes that fans of Gene & Georgetti will know and love, but the vibe of his restaurant is entirely its own. And he’s in no rush to expand, and above all he is proud to work for himself and give back to his fellow Ecuadorian immigrant community. “I come from the bottom, I know how hard it is working when you start at the bottom. Nothing comes free. I’m so happy because I’m not working for nobody.”