A True Italian Meal

Rocco tells us about his family dinners and his mother's meatballs.

First things first, we had no idea who would win the signature dish challenge. So before you start complaining that the twins didn't compete against each other, think about it. We would have loved to see the twins go head-to-head, but Ninamarie's super delicious smoked lamb made that impossible.

Last night's dinner party was especially close to my heart. I asked for a traditional Italian family dinner, one that would take me way back to my family's table as a child. My grandmother, my mother, my aunts, and my uncles would overwhelm us with the flavors, smells, and sounds of handmade, homegrown food being enjoyed by the most carefree bunch of loudmouths you've ever met. All of my guests had the same childhood experience and the same point of reference, so the pressure to recreate that magic was intense. I knew it had to ring true for them also, or it wouldn't be a fun night. If I didn't make the right choices, we could all end up feeling like we were at Olive Garden. 

What exactly is a traditional dinner in an Italian family? In mine there was homemade wine and bread, then a table full of antipasti. This came in endless varieties. It might be fish, meat, vegetables, bread, egg, cheeses, or salume, alone or in some combination. Crostini are very popular antipasti. These are simply slices of good bread, lightly toasted in the oven and spread with something tasty -- sometimes a mince of ripe tomato, fresh basil, and a dollop of fragrant olive oil.

Then came the primo, or the pasta course. In our home there was always a special pasta (or macaroni), and it was always the most labor intensive ones like handmade orrechiette, malfati, manicotti, lasagna, or ravioli. The pasta sauce (or gravy) was usually a ragu (chunks of pork, veal, sausages, and meatballs braised in a tomato sauce all day).

After the primo was, of course, secondo. The secondo in an Italian meal is the most like a main course in the U.S., but it's usually a smaller portion than we're used to. Quail, chicken, rabbit, beef, or fish are an ideal secondo.

After that, we always had dolce, or dessert. Dolce is usually very simple in an Italian dinner. (Those elaborate cream pastries in Italian bakeries are usually eaten as mid-morning or afternoon snacks, not with a meal.) Generally it's just fresh fruit from the garden peeled by a grownup or a few biscotti with a cup of strong espresso flavored with zambuco (café corretto). We ate these dishes again and again, and they were woven deeply into our way of life.

Meals in Italy have always been about more than food. The purpose of a traditional Italian dinner is to make everyone in the family feel loved. And so at this dinner party especially, I would be judging the chefs on whether they could make my guests feel cared for and loved. It was the first thing I told them when I explained the theme. Who was listening?

Competing were Ninamarie Bojekian, chef and owner of Ooh LaLa Catering and Events in New Jersey; Fabrizio Carro, executive chef at Quattro in New York City; and Nicola Carro, executive chef at Quattro in Miami. As I'm sure you saw, Fabrizio and Nicola are identical twins and Italian through and through. Both grew up with a passion for cooking and have translated that into stirring up innovative Italian "gastronomia" as they call it at their restaurant, Quattro in Miami. 

With twin chefs presiding in the kitchen, I wasn't sure which brother was cooking what. I asked Nicola to wear a scarf so I could tell them apart…or was that Fabrizio? And did you see the look on Ninamarie's face when they strolled in? The twins had a light-hearted, loving competition going on between them. She thought she was being punked.

As the trio got started on the Signature Dish Competition, Ninamarie had something really innovative going on -- a homemade stovetop smoker in which she was hot smoking lamb chops. Aromas began to curl through my kitchen. Lots of billowing smoke soon followed, so I had to check to make sure all was going as planned before I let the fire dept know we wouldn't be needing them this time. She'd serve it with blood orange dill yogurt and onion fennel salad. These are bold flavors and really require a deft touch to pull it together. Otherwise it would be a catastrophe in your mouth! I was dubious. 

Fabrizio prepared a lamb dish too, scottaditto of Colorado lamb Milanese style with a green olive sauce and risotto. No one was going to go hungry at his dinner party, that much I knew already. Scottaditto is one of my all time favorite ways to prepare lamb. It's usually just simply grilled baby lamb chops seasoned with lemon and oregano. You pick them up hot with your fingers and tear away. The name "scotta" means burn and "ditto" means fingers. I'm not sure why he felt the need to reinvent this dish. It didn't make a lot of sense to me.

Two lamb dishes? Here's something I've learned about lamb -- When it's great, it's phenomenal. But when it's not, it'll ruin your night after just one bite. I was hoping for phenomenal.

Nicola prepared handmade taglioni bomba style, made with rabiola cheese, ham, zucchini, radicchio, and Barolo wine sauce.

And they did all this in 30 minutes.

Then came the time to taste the Signature Dishes. I started with Ninamarie's dish. I've eaten some fine lamb in my time, but hers was way overcooked. I let her taste it. She admitted that the heat of the smoke was too intense and overcooked the lamb. But you know what? All the flavors came together, and it somehow tasted really good. She was brazen with her approach and not worse for it. She may have the gift!

On the flip side, Fabrizio's was really underdone. It was blue and cold in the center to the point of being inedible. I would hate it if he served my guests something so undercooked. Most people would freak out. Undercooked beef is one thing, but cold, blue lamb makes even diehard gastronomes wince. The wonderful flavor combinations of everything else on the plate saved him. He had a nice sensibility that made a traditional dish appealing even as it was being deconstructed and put back together again.

Not so with Nicola's dish. There were so many competing flavors in his dish that I couldn't tell what he was trying to accomplish. It was more a feat of physics than cooking. The beauty of a bomba is that it's a neat little package wrapped by something and filled with something. But the down side is you can't taste what you're serving without ruining the bomba! It was over-flavored, over-seasoned, and none of the elements worked together. Zero harmony. This dish was a battlefield, and Italians are usually such peaceful people. I was not impressed. It added up to one big mess, and Nicola was out. I was surprised. It seemed clear to everyone in the room that this dinner party was being set up for a twin chef showdown. Guess every competition isn't fixed, huh?

I awarded the Signature Dish Challenge to Ninamarie, who proved my own personal philosophy that you can produce magical results with ordinary ingredients. That's exactly what she did.

Ninamarie is not Italian; she's Greek-Armenian. Would that make her an underdog? I didn't know. I was a little nervous. Even though she cooks dinner parties for people all the time this food had to be authentic. Anybody who fakes Italian food irks me. When I was growing up, the food my mother and grandmother cooked was so genuine and generous that I always felt cared for. And that's how I needed my guests to feel tonight.

After Ninamarie and Fabrizio chose their rooms and designed their décor, I knew we might be in for a rocky night. Remember, this is a traditional Italian family dinner party. So why did Ninamarie chose a Little Italy type restaurant theme with photos of stereotyped Italians hanging on the wall? A traditional Italian meal is eaten at home. I was afraid this would be a sobering, off-putting experience for my guests.

Fabrizio -- who is so Italian that at the end of this blog you'll be ordering pasta, listening to some Pavarotti, and saying "Bravo!" and "Ciao!" with an Italian accent -- took a completely different approach. He designed the terrace to look like an Italian garden, complete with fruit trees, herbs, and vines. It was so authentic that I expected Giorgio Armani to be lighting candles and Sophia Loren to be pouring Chianti. I could see that Fabrizio was determined to do it right.

I hosted a lively, fun group of guests last night: Caroline and Albert Manzo, stars of 'The Real Housewives Of New Jersey' and co-owners of the Brownstone; Joey Fatone, former member of *NSYNC; Sara Gore, host of 'Open House' and 'New York Live'; Tammy Pescatelli, comedienne and actress; and Silvano Marchetto, chef and owner of DaSilvano restaurant in New York City.

As I served them wine, Fabrizio and Ninamarie hustled into my kitchen, cooking up what would hopefully be a warm, Italian embrace. Fabrizio went to work with a lot of bravado; I think he was trying to psych out Ninamarie by criticizing her for cooking chicken in mayonnaise. I was perplexed by that choice as well. Mayonnaise doesn't make food tender as Ninamarie claimed; it simply adds fat. 

As I normally do at my dinner parties, I asked if any of my guests had any special dietary requests. Sara spoke up, saying she was on a diet and trying to avoid carbs and fat-laden food. Her request had challenging written all over it. These days we all know someone who's on a low-carb diet, so I wasn't totally surprised. But here's the deal -- Italians love and eat all types of carbs from the minute they're born until the day they die. But how exactly can you have an Italian dinner party without bread and pasta?

Sara and I spoke to the chefs, and while I didn't hear it, I felt them let out a large "argh" and possibly a few expletives. But if one of my guests wants low-carb choices, then that's exactly what I want to give them. I was counting on Fabrizio and Ninamarie to come through for me on this one.

Ninamarie's party was first. Caroline loved the décor; she and Albert had their first date in Little Italy, so the room made them feel nostalgic. 

Ninamarie served a martini of vodka infused with rosemary and topped off with Prosecco. It was strong and really good. Her first course -- eggplant caponata and zucchini bread with grilled asparagus and figs -- was a big hit. Her secondo was cockles and mussels served with Israeli couscous, along with chopped chicken "scarparelli" (she calls it scarparelli, but the real name is scarpariello, which means in the style of the shoemaker i.e. cobbled together from many resources) and pasta. I glanced over to Sara on my left. She wasn't happy. Ninamarie had not done anything special to fulfill Sara's dietary request. She simply ignored it. I was devastated and was giving Ninamarie bad marks in my head.

Ninamarie's next course, veal Milanese made with peaches, got rave reviews. Caroline announced that she wanted to steal the recipe. It's always a good sign at a dinner party when people want your recipe. It was a very good dish and another example of Ninamarie's brilliance with flavor combinations.

Ninamarie stuck to tradition with fruit for dessert. She served a chilled, poached basil infused fruit cup, topped with sweetened crème fraiche. It was just ok. As one guest remarked, "It didn't have time to fuse."

On to Fabrizio's party. My guests felt transported to a jardino Toscano as they entered. It felt like a traditional family moment to me, although growing up in Queens, it wasn't what our home looked like (unfortunately). We had more concrete than grass and more chain link fence than charming pergola! Still everything was all about being traditional. The mood was festive but still elegant, there was food and wine everywhere, and fresh herbs and fresh fruit were growing in the space. 

We were served a very Italian cocktail, an Aperol Spritz, made with Aperol and Campari. It was sweet, bitter, sparkling… a perfect way to start this meal off.

Here's where things got interesting: Fabrizio served the super-traditional antipasti as his first course. A lively debate ensued. Did putting together a family-style serving of various cheeses, meats, and vegetables showcase his culinary talents sufficiently, as a few guests questioned? Or was it about creating a traditional Italian experience, as others asserted? I wasn't about to referee this one. I just dug in and started enjoying the antipasti like I did as a kid. But thinking about it now, I asked them to make us feel loved, and his choice certainly did that.

For the second course, Fabrizio made meatballs. Dangerous territory! My mother makes the best meatballs in the entire world. Excuse me while I go silent for a second dreaming about her meatballs. Hers are the greatest without question, so you could say I'm discerning when it comes to meatballs.

I admit I was shocked when I tasted Fabrizio's meatballs. They were absolutely delicious. What he did to them was amazing. I should emphasize that they were made without bread -- the same way my mom makes them. Sara could enjoy them too. (Not everything Italian is loaded with carbs.)

The meatballs were a huge hit, although Fabrizio claims they are usually a children's dish. The next course of lasagna was confusing. It looked perfect, and the texture was a dream. But the flavor was "flat," that was the consensus. It wasn't a terrible experience, but it sure wouldn't leave anyone yearning for seconds.

Here's what I applauded though -- Fabrizio whipped up a no-carb lasagna for Sara, made with strips of thinly sliced zucchini to fill in for lasagna noodles. Brilliant move. At Fabrizio's dinner party she never felt left out.

The next course was white fish poached in what Italians call "crazy water." That's water with a bunch of different spices and other ingredients in it. Sometimes seawater is used. I think that the name comes from the fact that if you drink the water you get crazy. (Or that you'd be crazy to drink it?) Regardless of the origin, this is a very typical way to prepare fish in Southern Italy, and when it's done right, it's amazing. I don't know if the water wasn't crazy enough, but the fish smelled fishy. That's a sign that the fish might have not been fresh, which was a real downer for that dish.  

The dolce was panna cotta served like mousse in a cup. Much of the fun of panna cotta (flavored cream set with gelatin and served cold) is watching it jiggle unmolded on the plate. Silvano was disappointed. No matter, everyone loved it. It was so good that I'm still heady from the experience.

Deciding the winner was going to be tough. Silvano suggested that they both win and split the prize. But it just wasn't that easy. Fabrizio had a few missteps, but created a true Italian experience. Plus he accommodated Sara brilliantly. Ninamarie has an innate sense of flavor that can't be taught, but she didn't care enough about her guest's dietary request and happiness, which ended up costing her. It's all about who created the most memorable experience for my guests, from décor to dessert, and in the end, that was Fabrizio. He took home $20,000, which he is splitting with his twin brother, Nicola, on their trip to Hawaii. So not only is the family honor still intact, but both brothers won in a sense.

As for my guests, we all had fun. I loved it when Joey graciously spoke to Caroline's daughter, Lauren, on the phone. Those are moments to remember and cherish.

Thank you Caroline, Albert, Joey, Sara, Tammy, and Silvano. May we all meet again someday.

 

 

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What the Bleepity Bleep Was in that Maple Syrup?!

Rocco DiSpirito explains the importance of love in cooking.

 

It wasn’t Valentine’s Day, but last night certainly felt like it. I am still trying to cool off. Ah,  if every day could be Valentine’s Day …

I welcomed to my kitchen three chefs with completely different backgrounds; hell, one wasn’t even an earning chef, but someone who just loves to cook (we should all be like her!) Let me introduce the trio:

Vicki Ferentino  is the owner of Soulfully Good Catering in New York City. She’s a self-taught chef/caterer who does a lot of huge, up-to-600-guest parties. She had to start cooking at age nine because her parents didn’t cook. That tells me she’s a real survivor. Her signature dish was a Buttermilk Fried Chicken Salad with Maple and Mayonnaise Dressing that I found intriguing. I mean, who combines maple syrup and mayonnaise? I like my maple syrup on buttermilk pancakes, not in my mayonnaise. (Plus, it was a visual disaster… if something looks that bad, you don’t want to taste it, but I had to, or it wouldn’t be fair to cast it out on looks alone. OK, that goes for life too: you can’t judge a book by its cover.) And to prove the truth of that well-worn cliché, Vicki’s dish was over-the-top delicious.

My second chef was Chris Thompson, Executive Chef who has worked in fine dining for more than 10 years in Minnesota. He currently hangs his chef’s hat at Smack Shack and has apprenticed under a lot of award-winning chefs. Chris is a “chef of the people.” He does the whole food truck thing where he sticks his head out the window and cooks great stuff at food fairs. 

But not dishes like the fois gras he was cooking for me. I got a whiff of it. Jeez, I concluded it had been around for a long time. It didn’t make me feel better when he said it had to be in a suitcase to get here. I wasn’t feeling very hungry after hearing that remark. Well, his full dish was pancake with fois gras, quail eggs, Serrano ham, and blueberry gastrique. It was a very indulgent and gorgeous-looking, but certainly not a breakfast you’d get at the local pancake shop, that’s for sure. But if you can get this in your town, let me know. OK, I ran my finger over the squiggle of gastrique and licked it. I said  “wow,” but what I really meant was “yuck.” It wasn’t balanced well against the strong flavors of the fois gras and eggs. On second thought, if your local pancake restaurant serves this dish, don’t call me.

Here is the most interesting entry in our signature challenge: Yuki Tsutsui, an investor relations professional with Avenue Capital. She’s a financier who loves to cook! I was freakin’ blown away by her willingness to come to the loft to compete. I am a huge believer in all of us learning to cook at home more often. I don’t care if you heat up tea in a microwave or slap together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you can cook. Hell, don’t get me started, but I think it’s healthier to cook at home, more satisfying, and definitely more economical -- and that’s coming from someone who has been a partner and executive chef in several restaurants. OK, let me jump off my soapbox with a thud, and say Yuki did something very creative and original. In fact, I’ve never seen such a feat before. Her signature dish not only told me how she cooks, it also told me so much about her heritage. She is Japanese with a Venezuelan background, so she prepared a fish taco called a JapaZuelan fish taco. It defined her persona from so many different points of view. BUT, yes there is always a “but”... the flavors of the fish (cod) didn’t combine well with the tomatillo sauce. Yuki flunked Sandwich 101, and she was eliminated. My final advice to her was: Hey, if you love cooking this much, get some formal training. If she takes my advice, I think we’ll see her in the next generation of celebrity chefs.Vicki won the Signature Dish Challenge. She won on taste, but I’ll tell you this: she also won on a fundamental, deep-down-in-your-heart reason: she cooks with love. It’s something you can’t taste, but it’s something you can feel. I don’t care if someone makes you a bowl of oatmeal or a five-course dinner, if they do it because they love you, you can feel it in your core and you never forget it. It is the most important ingredient when you cook for people you care about. 

Well, now that I’ve brought up the “love” thing, I should remind everyone that our theme was Perfect Pairings. I invited three couples to dinner. One couple was celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary (please, do I hear a collective Awww???) Another couple has been together 16 years, and the third couple just got engaged.

So I asked Vicki and Chris to create duets of food: two dishes that are delicious on their own, but when served together create a meal greater than the sum of the two parts. There would be three courses in all. So if I’ve done my math right, they’d have to prepare six different dishes for my guests.

Vicki chose the formal dining room. She made the room sexy and fun with flowers and candles. There were directions to a kissing booth. Formal definitions of love were on the wall. There was a bed with comfy pillows. The whole vibe was giving me ideas.  

Chris chose the terrace room for his dining experience. It had an outdoor picnic feel to it. He wanted it to conjure up an outdoor country wedding, but my party planner Jes Gordon felt that might make some guests feel uncomfortable, and I agree. Give me a kissing booth any day -- but I would let my guests be the ultimate judges.

And speaking of my guests, let me introduce them:

Jonathan Adler, Potter and Designer – and of course, the brainchild behind Jonathan Adler Design. He is an inspiration -- someone who got fired and turned down so many times before one brave company believed in him, and the rest is history.  Jonathan is an icon! He was joined by his life partner of 16 years, the witty and wonderful Simon Doonan. Simon is the Creative Ambassador for Barneys in New York City. Let me make this suggestion: If you have a Simon in your life, please invite him to your next dinner party. He and Jonathan were so delightful.  

And the just-engaged Hristo Zisoviski, the brilliant Sommelier, and his beautiful fiancee Tia Keenan, the Chief Fromager at the Make Room. Can you imagine the romantic evenings these two have… sharing wine and cheese, their passions?

Finally, our amazing couple Jason Jones and Samantha Bee, correspondents for The Daily Show, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary. They have three beautiful children. This is a couple who work together, play together, do it all together. What an inspiration.The love in the room just gave me such pause. As I watched each couple and immersed myself in their connection, I saw how when you love someone more than you need them, you truly make each other’s lives richer. 

Got to get out of that reverie and continue this blog. Vicki served first with a Carrot Ginger Soup and Coconut Shrimp. At this point I should mention a few things:

Tia doesn’t eat shrimp or lobster.

Simon doesn’t eat meat.

Samantha and Jason wanted to have something Cuban to celebrate a great time they had in Cuba during their romance.

So I threw down the gauntlet to Vicki and Chris: Accommodate these requests!

Vicki came through on the first course; she fixed Tia this amazing fried cheese piece of delight in lieu of the shrimp. But I think she cut the grilled cheese sandwich on the same cutting board she used for the shrimp… hope the swelling goes down soon, Tia.

Next up was her Garlic Herbed rubbed Lamb Chops with Roasted Vegetable Risotto. Not a big hit. The lamb was overcooked. She took all the fat off it. Bad choices, all the way around. The worst thing you can do is under dress and overcook lamb. 

For dessert, she served what she thought were pumpkin doughnuts with vanilla bean custard. She waited too long to make the custard, so what we got was a dipping sauce for the doughnuts, which were really beignets or zeppoles or donut holes or maybe fried dough? OK, I won’t split hairs. Doughnuts are fried dough. My mom let me fry dough when I was a kid and sprinkle it in sugar or honey, and I loved it. Fried dough rocks!

Oh, I should add that Vicki made a Cuban sandwich to commemorate Sam and Jason’s anniversary. It was spectacular, with a side of plantains. Hey, of course, I have plantains in my fridge, doesn’t everyone? 

Now, here’s where Vicki started racking up the points: She gave each guest a gift of jam with scones, beautifully boxed. My guests started tasting all of it immediately. When Simon said the jam was orgasmic, I thought I would have to postpone the second dinner party until the next nightWell, fortunately I broke the sexual tension in the air and got everyone to move to Chris’ dinner party in my Terrace Room. He started us off with Tuna Poke and Lobster Salad, but I felt like we had been waiting 10 years for our first course. Chris was completely off on his timing. The worst thing was he served shellfish to someone who is allergic to it. That is scary, folks. Don’t ever do that, unless you want ambulance personnel interrupting your dinner party. I already knew where this was headed. And it didn’t help that one of my guests pronounced Chris as someone who cooks like the “lunch chef.”  In my business, it’s the 3rd or 4th string that gets lunch duty. Ouch.

Chris is a real expert at plating… he loves to design plates… made me nostalgic… because when I was a young chef… excuse me, I am still a “young” chef, that was something I was known for, so I appreciate his plate artistry.

After Chris served his fennel braised short ribs, the most bizarre thing happened and I don’t really know how to process it. Simon doesn’t eat meat, and Chris didn’t make a substitute dish (major faux pas), yet Simon tried it and really loved it. This was the first time he had eaten red meat in 30 years. I think it says something about his impeccable manners, that he politely tried something and was so gracious about it. Yet at the same time I want my chefs to cater to my guests’ every desire and whim. Simon was such an amazing sport… God love him.

And Chris fixed a spectacular Cuban dish too. Roasted chicken and plantains… Yes, of course I am always well stocked with plantains. The dish was a triumph. I got to thinking over the past weeks -- it seems like the dishes I’ve asked these chefs to make on the fly have been their best. I wonder if we overthink food too much? Is spontaneity better, like it is in romance? I don’t know... bring me your comments on this!

Everyone loved Chris’s desserts, Pot de Creme and Crème Brulee

Over dinner, we had some provocative discussions about anniversaries over the course of relationships. Like: do you remember the first date… the first time you had sex… the first anniversary of your first date…. Blah, blah, blah… I will end the debate now: every day that you spend together, every moment, is an anniversary to be celebrated and cherished.

So… at the end of night, Vicki won… again she cooked with love, and love, well, that’s what life is all about.

But I still think she put something in that maple syrup ….

 

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