Looking at chef Jose Luna and listening to his infectious laugh, you would not imagine someone who has more than three decades of professional culinary experience. His most recent venture, Trattoria 225, is a decidedly cheery restaurant with eclectic, local art dotting the bright yellow or exposed brick walls. Trattoria 225, in Oak Park's arts district, successfully fuses the intimacy and familiarity of a neighborhood restaurant with the generous seating of a more "downtown" restaurant.
From an open kitchen complete with a formidable pizza oven, the cooks produce a steady stream of solid, creative and perfectly executed pizzas, pastas and other noshes. Sitting at the turn of the substantial L-shaped bar at the end of the night's service, it was time for a beer and some conversation. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why did you decide to open in Oak Park? What is the thought behind this restaurant?
A: We spent a lot of time looking for a restaurant location and looked at a lot of them. When we saw this place, we knew it was right. Oak Park is such a wonderful town, and it was funny that I really hadn't heard much about the restaurants there. My philosophy here is simple: Just like my dad taught me, always do your best. This is a place for people to come in and just relax with friends and family. It is not about egos — not mine or those of my employees. Instead it is about our need to touch our guests and never stop learning about what they want to eat and how we can take care of them with great service.
Q: Is there another restaurant you like to go to that has this same mentality for service?
A: In Naperville there is this restaurant, White Chocolate Grill. Not sure if you have heard of it, but I love the way they do things. The service is so attentive. I am not sure if they work in groups or what, but the minute your dish is empty they pick it up — the minute a glass needs refilling, it's refilled. The food is also unique. I love the roasted carrots with honey. It's a totally consistent place.
Q: Any "killer" meals in the last year?
A: We like to go to a Brazilian steakhouse in Downers Grove called Chama Gaucha. It has it all — great service, quality product and ambience. My son loves it. Where can you go where quality food just keeps coming?
Q: Any others in the western suburbs?
A: Emilio's Tapas. My wife and I love it. It's our kind of place, relaxed, laid back with great food — not just tapas but main courses too. For fish, we love Chinn's (34th Street Fishery) in Lisle. The Hawaiian fish there is so fresh. My daughter gets the king crab legs. Ask for Richard the server — he is really cool. Also, for a top-quality steak, it's Gibsons, although they are downtown.
Q: You are Mexican and I assume you like Mexican food. How about other international restaurants? A: I am from Guadalajara and yes, I love Mexican cuisine. I like authentic cuisine. If I order quiche, it has to be really quiche and not some interpretation of quiche. For me, Arun's (in Albany Park) is first-class, authentic Thai food that's inspirational. I have always loved that restaurant.
Q: Last question: What is a favorite nosh?
A: I love Lou Malnati's. There is also this place, El Burrito Loco, that we go to in Naperville. I always get the steak tacos with extra onions and cilantro and green salsa. I take it home with a big cup of horchata that I pour in some rum when I get home. It's perfect.
Christopher Koetke is the vice president of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College. He also hosts the cooking show "Let's Dish" on the Live Well Network.