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.



A Gastronomical Experience

Rocco DiSpirito sheds light on Kevin's win. 

Tell your friends you’re going to eat at a gastro-pub tonight, and the likely response will be “gastro-what?” “Gastro-pub” is a British term for a public house (“pub”) that specializes in high-quality food a step above the more basic “pub grub.” Gastro-pub was the theme for last night’s party. That winds me up because I love fish and chips as much as the next guy, and the idea of pub food put me in a beer frame of mind.

The chefs I invited had one interesting thing in common: all were self-trained. Most chefs have restaurant training or culinary education, but self-taught chefs learned by doing or by turning a hobby into a profession. Some of the most famous celebrity chefs you see on TV are self-trained.

Competing were: Chris Calcagno, Executive Chef of Café Amici in New Jersey; Janet Kim, Chef at Gordon Ramsey at the London in New York City; and Kevin Gaudreau, Executive Chef at the Pier Restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island.

Chris has worked mostly in mom and pop restaurants, but is known for bringing New York City flavors to the table. His signature dish was a Blackened Mahi Mahi fillet with Citrus Shallot Beurre Blanc, Sweet Corn Mash, and Sautéed Spinach. Beurre Blanc is a classic French butter sauce. The taste of a good beurre blanc can make you moan with pleasure. It’s a simple emulsion — a reduction of shallots, wine and vinegar, and an absurd amount of butter. By “absurd amount,” I mean there is so much butter involved that you could use the leftovers to grease the axles of your car. Beurre Blanc can be terribly fragile if you don’t follow a couple of basic rules. The butter should be cold and go in slowly. The emulsion, once bonded, needs to be kept at the right temperature. If you let the sauce boil, it will separate, or “break.” I think that’s what happened to Chris’s beurre blanc.Janet clearly has a passion for cooking. She quit doing postgraduate work to cook and has since worked with a lot of well-known chefs. Janet made Spicy Korean Barbecue Pork Chops with Kimchi, which is fermented vegetables, usually cabbage, in a pepper sauce. Fermented veggies don’t sound like the most attractive culinary proposition, but Koreans eat it with almost every meal, and nutritionists may soon be recommending that we do the same. Recent studies have found that this spicy dish may stop the replication of cancer cells in the body. But the list of the vegetable's credentials doesn’t end there. Low in calories, Kim chi is also high in fiber, and is a good source of vitamins A, B and C. Thanks again to the lactic acid formed in the fermentation process, the vegetable has more good bacteria than yogurt, meaning that it aids the digestive process and is good for the intestine walls. But I don’t think Janet’s little bits of kim chi would be enough to supply all that nutritional power. OK, nutrition lesson over, I need to add that I’m a huge fan of Korean flavors, I have to get my fix a few times a month or I’m not happy. I was in hog heaven when I found out what Janet was making for her signature dish. I didn’t like everything I put in my mouth, but her pork was over-the-top delicious.

Kevin was an interesting guy. His culinary career spanned dishwasher to chef, but not before serving our country in the Marines. He fixed a popular appetizer often served at his restaurant: Shrimp and Grits with smoked bacon and leeks. His goal was to layer the dish with flavor, but I thought it looked like a plate right off an assembly line at very large restaurant. Looks are one thing, but taste is another. Kevin’s signature dish was outstanding.

All three chefs did an amazing job, but one missed the mark: Chris. Buerre blanc is something we as chefs learn from day one, so I couldn’t believe he had screwed up something so basic. It cost him the party, and he was out.I awarded the Signature Dish Challenge to Kevin, but warned him to leave the engineer mentality at home, and show me he can cook with heart. To Janet, my advice was similar: think less and feel more.

Kevin and Janet got fired up about the Gastro-Pub Dinner Party theme. Janet loves British fooda, nd I explained that their menus had to be pub-grub but cooked to a really high, creative standard.

Their décor choices couldn’t have been more different. Both chefs kept true to a British pub ambiance, with Janet doing an edgy punk-rock look in the intimate dining room (did you see those kinky napkin rings?) with a dart board, and Kevin created an ambience as close to an English pub as you can find. The minute I stepped into it, I felt as if I’d been warped into London suburbia. The roughhewn table draped with butcher paper, the menu on the chalkboard, the exposed brick wall with British paintings, and the chairs with comfortable upholstery -- all so typical of a classic English pub.

Broken record, I know, but how many times have I mentioned I am always looking at whether a dinner party succeeds on its own terms? And it is not all about the food, if it was, people would just stay at home and cook. Normally, it’s a social experience; it’s about setting up the right vibes, and serving up a wonderful time for guests. Invited to this week’s party were:

Amanda Hesser, New York Times food writer. That has to be the second most fun job in the world, next to being a chef.Ken Oringer, Chef and gastro-pub owner. I was delighted to have a real expert at the table and Ken provided some great commentary on this cuisine.

Christopher McDonald, actor. You know Christopher from the hundreds of movies he’s been in, including Thelma and Louise, The Perfect Storm, and Leave It to Beaver (he played the iconic Ward Cleaver.)

Frank Carfaro, founder of DESIRON Furniture, a highly-celebrated luxury furniture design company.

Raven-Symone, actress. Remember her from The Cosby Show? She’s grown up a lot since then and has acted in many movies. Raven doesn’t eat pork, meat, or organ meat of any kind, so the pressure was on Kevin and Janet to appease her tastes and do it deliciously. (Both chefs rose to the occasion with culinary mastery.)

Cat Deeley, host of So You Think You Can Dance. I was glad she accepted my invitation; Cat is British-born and bred and knows all about true pub food.

Janet’s dinner party went first. She started us off with her version of pub chips: Bacon Chili Crisps. Ken initiated us with a quick lesson on how these babies are made. The flavor components come from bacon fat and maltodextrin (a compound derived from starch that make fat turn into powder) to create bacon-flavored “crisps.”

Her next course was Pimm’s and Lemonade Beet Salad with Candied Pine Nuts and Wesleydale with Cranberries. Pimm’s and Lemonade is a popular drink in the UK; Janet turned it into vinaigrette for the salad--– very ingenious.Course number three was interesting: Bone marrow with Stilton Cheese. A little explanation is due here. Bone marrow is not pretty to behold. Like certain other parts of the creatures some people might eat -- think intestines and feet -- bone marrow tends to make a lot of people squeamish. But it’s gaining acceptance and showing up on more tables. Janet served the bone marrow elegantly with dainty, tiny spoons to slurp up every creamy globule. If I had to eat a last meal, bone marrow would be on the menu. (Raven received a delicious-looking tiny fondue of cheese and onions.)

Janet’s main course was a heart-stopping Beer Brisket with Cheddar Yorkshire Pudding, Crispy Peas, Currant Chutney, and Onion Puree. Yorkshire Pudding. This was pub-grub with a touch of finesse. The magic of Yorkshire pudding is that it’s a thin batter that, upon contact with fat in a hot pan, puffs up into a sort of rich popover. 

The one disappointment was dessert. It got mixed reviews: Rose Mascarpone Cloud with English Cucumber and British Tea broth. Cat, who is British, wasn’t familiar with British Tea Broth. Was it even a pub food? I don’t know; I don’t even know what it is. To enlighten myself, I googled “British Tea Broth.” No hits. But I do know that tea broth simply means you use steeped tea as part of a soup base.

Well, I guess we could argue semantics all night, but let’s move on to Kevin’s dinner. Kevin runs a bit of a militaristic kitchen with the fervor and gusto of a drill sergeant, banging out orders to the waiters like a culinary boot camp. You can take a guy out of the Marines but you can’t take the Marines out of the guy, or something like that.Kevin’s English Pea Soup with Crispy Proscuitto was soul-warming hot, with enough bite to make you want more. But by this time we were all approaching food overload so it was on to his pub-classic Fish and Chips. Kevin put a new spin on the chips -- Truffle Chips, an amazing piece of delicious!

Kevin served Lobster Pot Pie next. Earlier, he and I had an intellectual discussion between chef-buds about lobster. Most people -- and most chefs -- discard one of the best pieces of a lobster. It’s the tomalley, the lobster’s liver (a greenish looking glob in the body cavity.) It’s considered a delicacy. When I make lobster bisque (my favorite food), I leave in the tomalley in the body to flavor the stock. If Kevin were to discard the tomalley, well, pans would have been flying. Fortunately, Kevin and I are on the same side of the soup tureen when it comes to the tomalley. OK, back to the Lobster Pot Pie. Kevin pinched it with too much saffron. It’s always best to use saffron sparingly. What was he thinking? Too much can leave an unpleasant medicinal or bitter flavor that is overpowering, even unpalatable. It tasted like “licking bathroom tile,” according to one of my guests, after her first mouthful. Conversation came to an abrupt stop when I offered to step into the bathroom to make a comparative analysis.

Next scene, please: Kevin served his Roasted Lamb Tenderloin with Seasoned Baked Beans and Swiss Chard to mixed reviews from my guests.

Kevin added yet another entrée-like course: Seared Liver and Caramelized Onions. Very risky. You may have the world's most sophisticated palate, but that doesn't mean all of your guests will appreciate the finer points of liver. After a few mouthfuls, some of my guests broke the silence and said it was really good, even as good as what a few people had tasted in England. Hey, was that a burp I heard? Now onto dessert: White and Dark Chocolate Banana Bread Pudding. For those of you keeping score at home, you’ve seen how many tantalizing, gooey, scrumptious-looking, loaded-with-more-calories-than-I've-eaten-this-year bread puddings I’ve scarfed down. But what the hell, I decided to have one last fling with this heavy, hearty food. That scale had better be merciful in the morning. Honestly though, I didn’t eat that much of it. No one else did either. No one really like the way Kevin “deconstructed” it.

That’s a word tossed around a lot last night. It’s chef-speak for taking individual components in a recipe and are arranging them separately, or plating them in a different way. So in Kevin’s dessert, he took the banana out of the bread pudding and put a sliced banana on the plate next to a little glob of bread pudding. Sure, the dish made for interesting visual appeal, but I was sort of ambivalent about the actual taste of the dish -- or even the idea behind it, because as a diner, you have to take your fork and reconstruct the dish anyway, so what’s the point? I’m into flavor -- that’s been my hallmark as a chef -- and you can’t really fuse flavors if you’re going to take things apart. I’m a very liberal chef, but when it comes to deconstructing stuff, leave that to the guys who are remodeling my kitchen.

Although Kevin’s last impression wasn’t his best impression, my guests had the best time at his dinner party. They loved the very-pubby British atmosphere of his room, they loved certain parts of his menu, they just had a freaking good time, and I could feel it. The competition was so close, but in the end it was Kevin who produced a gastronomical experience for everyone.