Arts: Glasswork…By The Slice

Have you ever seen art created from the comfort of a pizzeria table? Most likely you haven’t. But that’s all about to change. Fifteen years ago, Chris McGahan and his wife, Linda, set out on a new adventure: opening a tiny pizza shop called Italian Jim’s. Before they knew it, repeat customers were driving dozens of miles for pizza made from unique recipes passed down from Linda’s father, Jim, the restaurant’s namesake.

Perhaps it was that same adventurous spirit that led the McGahans to take their restaurant in a direction that no one could have guessed. Italian Jim’s Restaurant has come to Edmond and features an expanded menu that includes steak and other tantalizing options, but the most distinctive change is the presence of the Bella Forte Glass Studio.

For years, McGahan and his son, Micah, have sold their artistic glasswork, but this is the first time the studio and restaurant have been under the same roof. Furthermore, glass-blowing has been integrated into the dining experience. Visitors can watch the father-and-son team fire, stretch, and mold glowing-hot glass while they eat. They can even schedule time in the “hot shop” and pick out colors for a piece made in front of them. “We’re the only place in the United States that you can make all that happen in one place,” McGahan says.

Glass-blowing lessons were a birthday gift from Linda seven years ago, and since then McGahan has taught Micah. Together, they’ve filled the restaurant with gleaming chandeliers and pendant lights inlaid with dazzling designs, as well as a variety of colorful glass decorations. Redento raffinato, which means “redeemed elegance,” is a signature creation that resembles a large yet graceful vase, but may appear almost floral in design.

“It takes a long time to be able to make something like that – you have to break a lot of glass,” McGahan admits. “I love the response of people when they see its beauty and I love to be able to do something that very few people can do.”

Optimal glass-blowing temperature is 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, and patrons at Italian Jim’s can watch the glass get that hot while they eat. Before the glass gets “cold,” which is 1,000 degrees, McGahan and his son use iron “punty” rods to put the glass into a furnace they’ve named “Hell’s Fridge,” which gets up to 2,400 degrees.

Glass-blowing is considered an Italian art. Six years ago, McGahan dreamed of combining glass-blowing with a pizza restaurant. “We have been pursuing that diligently ever since,” he says. “Bella” is Italian for “beautiful” and “forte” means “loud” or “strong.” McGahan describes their work as “beautiful glass that is loud in presentation and color and strong in design.”

The first place to carry Bella Forte glass was the Dean-Lively Gallery in Edmond. It was that relationship that lead to Italian Jim’s moving from Yukon to its new Edmond location. Owner Barry Rice was in the process of restoring 15 and 13 S. Broadway to historical integrity. “Our vision of urban loft décor and his vision meshed perfectly,” McGahan says.

Over the last year, they’ve taken out two suspended ceilings, one of which was nearly 60 years old, to expose the original, riveted trusses. They’ve also taken down part of a wall to restore the large door used when it was a garage. The door now swings open to show what’s happening in the glass studio.

While the space the McGahans moved their business into was being upgraded, so was the restaurant itself. The new front-of-house manager makes sure things run smoothly. Kitchens at earlier Italian Jim’s locations sported little more than a pizza oven and a makeshift table. Now, they have a char grill and an improved baking oven. They have a cook line and an executive chef – U.K.-born Stephen Gooding, who worked with world-famous chef Gordon Ramsey, an infamous perfectionist, for two years. Gooding also worked as a staff cook at Buckingham Palace in England for two years. The variety on the new, expanded menu reflects these changes.

“We’ve radically changed our operation, but we still do the pizza like we’ve always done it,” McGahan promises. “That hasn’t changed.” Pepperonis in neat rows; green, red, yellow bell peppers cut into rings and high-quality cheese that nukes just fine in the microwave the next morning are traits all lovers of Italian Jim’s pizza expect. “We do not buy premade pizza sauce and we do not buy frozen dough that someone else made,” he says. “Our goal is to make the best-quality pizza for a fair price.”

And McGahan keeps his business a family affair. “We could not make this operation work without my wife and kids,” McGahan says. His son, Micah, and his daughters, Kim and Krista, have helped with the restaurant since it started in 1996. “Without (Linda), I would not be in the pizza business. Without her, I would not be blowing glass,” he admits. “Without the people around me, I would be in complete obscurity.”

“Ever since we started in the pizza business, even before I thought about glass-blowing, our desire was to have our pizza place be more upscale,” McGahan recalls. He and his family made the decision to let go of the Yukon location and focus all of their attention on the new place. “We did not want to dilute the family’s efforts,” he says. “This is our home.”

Italian Jim’s and Bella Forte are open Monday – Saturday from

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and located at 13 and 15 S. Broadway.

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