La Sorella’s Lisa Gerteis believes in making every meal special.
By Diana Simeon
Lisa Alongi Gerteis had always dreamed of going to cooking school, so in 2016 she took the plunge, enrolling in the culinary arts program at the International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute — founded by Loretta Paganini — in Chesterland.
Little did Gerteis dream that less than a year later, she’d be the owner of a busy catering company, La Sorella Catering Services.
“School was just for me — I wasn’t planning on doing anything with it. But then I started getting asked to do catering,” says Gerteis, who was in the midst of preparing desserts for a luncheon she was catering over the weekend. On the menu: sandwiches and fresh salads, blackberry-brownie cheesecake, two kinds of cupcakes — one her favorite vanilla and the other a lemon verbena — brown-butter-toffee-chocolate chip cookies, and lavender-and-vanilla bean palmiers.
Like many in the profession, Gerteis’s first catering experience was a favor for a friend. “I was working in real estate at the time and a friend asked if I would cater an event at University Hospitals,” she says. “I’d never really thought about catering. I was really nervous but it all worked out.”
Soon, the phone started ringing, so Gerteis quickly pulled together a plan. “I did it backwards,” she says. “I had to get a business license, register as an LLC, and all that.”
She also needed a name. La Sorella, which means sister in Italian, hints at Gerteis’s heritage (her dad was from Sicily), but it has a bigger meaning too.
“I feel very strongly about family and my sister is really everything to me. My two daughters are sisters. I have girlfriends who are like sisters, neighbors who are like sisters. It’s an important relationship,” she explains.
Plus, she’d developed her own love of cooking from the many women in her life. “My grandmothers always cooked. My mother always cooked. My stepmother was also a wonderful cook.”
Gerteis grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Not surprisingly, Italian and Southwestern cuisine are among her favorites. Oh, and pot pies.
“I just really like them,” she laughs. “I make the crust, I make the chicken stock. That was one of the great things about cooking school: learning how to make all the parts of a recipe. If I can make it, I make it.”
Gerteis met her husband, Mark, in college in Denver. After graduation, the couple remained there until Mark, who is president of Forest City Capital Corp., was transferred to Cleveland.
“We started looking for a house on the West Side and my husband said, ‘Please just look at Shaker.’ Somebody he works with invited us to dinner and it was beautiful. I was captivated by the neighborhoods, the charm of the homes, and so we started looking at houses,” recalls Gerteis.
About 20 houses later they found “the one” in the City’s Boulevard neighborhood. They moved in, started renovating, and quickly felt right at home. “The community is great,” says Gerteis, who has also worked as a realtor at Howard Hanna. “We have wonderful neighbors, friends. Another thing I love about this community is that people genuinely want to see others succeed.”
These days, Gerteis is feeling her way to next steps for her business. “I’m trying to keep up with the growth,” she says.
But her approach is unlikely to change. She enjoys developing menus in collaboration with her clients. “We sit down and talk about a plan. What are the guests like? What type of party is it? Formal or casual? Age of the guests? Food allergies are also a big thing. I’m doing a bridal shower where the bride is gluten free and a rehearsal dinner where the bride is vegan, so I’m developing menus that meet those needs.”
“I try to make it all as special as possible. It’s just how I am.”
Her favorite event so far? A private party at Cleveland’s re:bar, on E. 9th Street, for which she created platters of charcuterie and crudité. She often gets inspiration from the fresh ingredients she discovers locally, but often with a twist. “For example, I like to do interesting vegetables,” she says. “Not just carrots and celery, but tri-color carrots with stems on them, purple cauliflower, and other things I find at the markets.”
That includes using Cleveland suppliers for meat and fish. “I like to give business to local places,” says Gerteis. “I believe in quality and try to find the best ingredients I can.” That includes meats from Ohio Provisions on Cleveland’s West Side and fish from Catanese Classic Seafood in the Flats.
Says Gerteis, “I care about what I’m making for people. Whether I’m cooking for a friend, my family, or for work, I try to make it all as special as possible. It’s just how I am.”
View Gerteis’s creations on the La Sorella Facebook page.