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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Thank God for Caviar

Rocco DiSpirito explains why Frank won the fashion forward challenge.

It was a night I will never forget. Two of the most creative fields in the world came together -- Food and Fashion. Did they click or clash? You be the judge. It was a crazy night of poorly-timed servings, mounds of caviar -- and a discussion about whale vomit!!!! I just never know what’s going to happen when I allow chefs to innovate and guests to (hopefully) hit it off.  

The craziness started from the get-go, with three chefs coming from totally different backgrounds. Were they competing on level playing fields? Probably not, but the “field” is a kitchen, and the floor is level the last time I checked. First, there was football player-turned chef Bill Haley, who is a sous-chef at Plaza Food Hall. I love sous-chefs. When I was an executive chef, I couldn’t do without mine. The word sous (pronounced sue) comes from the French word for under or beneath, or, in this case, assistant. He’s the go-to guy, the heart and backbone of the kitchen, and typically the person who puts in the longest hours. To put it in Bill’s language, the sous-chef is the quarterback; the executive chef is like the coach.

Sharon Robustelli is self-trained and has been in the business for only two years. Amazing -- clearly she’s someone who just doesn’t follow her dream; she makes it come true. I love having self-taught chefs in my kitchen and on the show. Because they’re not classically trained, I think people can relate to them. 

Then there was Frank Otte Jr. What a kick he was. If he ever loses his job as an "Executive" private chef, he might do well as a stand-up comedian, or a drill sergeant. He ran his kitchen with military precision, no question.

Well, the pans started clattering right away. Bill’s “Amazing Rack” was pan-seared baby rack of lamb on top of a succotash-like dish of baby carrots, fresh English peas, and herbs. I got on his case because he trimmed too much fat off the lamb. I love the unique flavor of really good lamb, and I know that cooking the perfect lamb rack can be a little tricky. But cooking it without its attendant fat, that’s just crazy. It tasted good, not great. His dish underwhelmed me.

Sharon did something unusual -- and brave: she crusted a New York strip with espresso and grilled it. Maybe you like your express after your steak, but let me tell you, this is one helluva way to grill steak. One taste and I was hooked. I’ll be seeing a lot more of that dish.

Frank got fancy. He wrapped a generous piece of halibut with prosciutto and sage. What a way to blend and lock in flavors in an otherwise mild fish! He served it over creamy sauerkraut and sautéed Granny Smith rings. I usually like my sauerkraut tucked inside a nice meaty Reuben -- and I love every incredibly messy minute of it -- but this worked.

The real standout was Sharon. I awarded her the Signature Dish Challenge, and I sent Bill home with leftover succotash.

With Frank and Sharon left standing, I explained how they needed to translate the fashion theme into their food. They’d have to cook three courses; each course would have two versions: a “ready-to-wear” version, something easily recognizable and that everyone loves and a couture version, something handcrafted, that we’ve never seen before. I wanted them to innovate and be responsible for “designing their own line.” 

For décor, Sharon conceptualized the overall look and feel of a high-style fashion show with contrasting black and white and touches of red. Frank went for a silvery '40s glam look, like the dressing room behind the stage of a fashion show. If I were awarding prizes for décor, this one would be a tie. Second thought, I might give a slight edge to Frank, his room did feel better when we were sitting in it.

My dinner parties are very personal. I care enough about people to make sure I plan a special night for them. And so my guests last night were:

Brendan Newnam and Rico Gagliano - co-hosts of a great show on NPR called The Dinner Party Download. I knew they’d love this one and have a lot to contribute.

Katrina Szich - TV host and CBS Early Show contributor.

Nikki Blonsky, actress, singer -- and star of Hairspray.

Kara Janx - Fashion Designer.

Nicole Miller - Fashion Icon.

Nicole gave me a great idea just before the party started. She told me that in the fashion world, a designer kicks off the season with a “first look” -- a design that defines the rest of the collection. So I asked both chefs to create a “first look” first course that would preview their subsequent courses. 

Sharon’s dinner party went first. And her first look was a tuna tartare with avocado and parmesan crisps. Very bold move -- there are still some diners who turn pale at the thought of eating raw fish. But I didn’t hear any complaints. Some advice though: If your relatives are meat-and-potatoes kind of folks, don't take tuna tartare for Sunday dinner.

Sharon got even bolder by preparing side dishes for the next course: Her ready-to-wear was Potatoes Au Gratin; her couture dish was caviar in a New Potato Cup. Everyone went orgasmic over the caviar, and I scooted into the kitchen to grab a big tin of it. After I started spooning out heaps of caviar, the feeding frenzy grew. I’ve never seen caviar flow so freely in my life. 

Sharon is a self-proclaimed slow-poke, and we had to wait 44 minutes to get the next course. (Thank God for caviar -- though, it’s an expensive way to pass the time....)

Once the next course came it was tuna: an incredible tuna salad and a sesame-crusted tuna, which flopped because the flesh was tough -- and really, the dish was uninspired. 

My guests had only a matter of minutes to taste Sharon’s desserts: S'mores (or schmores as they are now known #oyvey) and a Chocolate Ganache. In fact we fled to Frank’s dinner party with Sharon’s desserts in hand. I was really pissed off by the poor timing. 44 minutes is a long time to small talk. 

Frank started us off with Roasted Poussin with a vegetable puree -- his first look course. A poussin is a very young chicken, and it has a very delicate flavor and very little fat. It was a hit.

Next he did a classic Caesar salad (his ready-to-wear) and a creative variation on that for his couture. He put anchovies on the plate with some Romaine lettuce and petite crusts of bread. This was scary territory; so many people declare anchovies public enemy No. 1. But not this crowd. If I thought the caviar was a hit, did you see everyone scarf down those anchovies? Katrina, who hates anchovies, loved these. The consensus was: forget the rest of the stuff on the plate, just give us more anchovies.

Frank’s main course was a steak duo: Steak Frites (or as they’re called at McDonald’s, “fries”). His couture dish was Filet of Steak Crusted with Exotic Pepper and served atop a blue cheese sauce. I know Frank labored over that steak. Hell, he was taking its internal temperature so often you’d have thought it had the flu.

Well, I took one bite of the steak that was swimming in the blue cheese, and I visibly gagged. Nicole took a bite and seconds later we were gagging in unison. It was so bad, I'm sure it turned everyone off steak for good. The steak frites was great and the ketchup was a genius move on his part. The blue cheese sauce was his one mulligan for the game.

I was glad to see dessert arrive so I could get that taste out of my mouth. Dessert was a French Apple Tart a la mode (Frank made us homemade vanilla ice cream) and the ready-to-wear version, which was a tad dry Classic Apple Crumble. The tart, though, rocked our taste buds.

Well you saw what happened next. I pronounced Frank the winner, and boy did I hear about it. Seconds after the show aired, I got almost 900 tweets protesting his victory. But let me come to the guy’s (and my own) defense. Sure, he was bald, tattooed, and cocky, but the guests didn’t know that and he got mostly delicious food out on time. Had Sharon the experience to not screw up the timing so badly and make us wait so very long, yes, she would have probably won. I liked her spirit, her energy, but I don’t know about you -- after 25 minutes I start to run out of small talky things to say. When guests are visibly uncomfortable because they waited close to an hour to be served mediocre food it just sucks. I had to help her plate her next course, and leave my guests on their own for a while and all the caviar in the world doesn’t make up for that kind of rudeness. It’s all about who created the best experience for my guests. And Frank did just that. We definitely all had a better time at his dinner party. Plus, my mom (sort of) agrees with my choice, so I can sleep tonight knowing I did the right thing.


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