Watching the show, I realize I look angry during the meal and later, at Judges' Table. That's because I was angry. I felt betrayed by these otherwise talented cooks. Allow me to explain: I love Italy. It's a relatively new and still passionate love as (other than a brief trip as a teenager), I hadn't been there until a few years ago. Now I go a lot. My wife is Italian. My daughter is a citizen. I vacation with my new family in Lombardy and Sardinia every year -- and make sure to shoot as many episodes of my show as I can nearby (for obvious reasons.) I am happiest these days sitting at a bare wood table at an agriturismo somewhere in the Italian countryside, drinking rough local wines and eating the local salumi and pasta. I don't ask for a lot. I don't need a lot. Simple. Competent. Back in New York, I, by necessity, choose Italian restaurants that my wife finds "acceptable." That doesn't mean fancy. That means restaurants who know how not to f--k up a simple, good thing. Like pasta. There is no shortage of decent Italian restaurants these days, so you'd think our contestants would do better. But… MINCHIA! A bowl of steamed mussels and garlic bread won the day! That should tell you something. That should tell you a lot.
So, there we are: Me, Tom, Padma, Frankie , Junior, bartender Nicky "Vest," co-owner, Ron, chef Dino, manager Joe -- and the magnificent Lorraine Bracco. We sit there in Rao's tiny dining room surrounded by history, expecting a nice, unfussy family meal -- like somebody's Italian mother -- anybody's Italian mother might make. For antipasti, we got a decent but over-refined and unassertive minestrone from Carla that Ron said tasted like the Wisconsin version. A very good sausage-flecked polenta dish with garnishes from Tiffany that was very tasty but neither Italian, really, nor particularly Italian American. And the aforementioned steamed mussels with white wine and fennel with garlic bread from Antonia that, at very least, got the mood and the expectations of her clients exactly right. A big, steaming bowl of properly cooked mussels, with crusty, strongly-garlicked bread. (Fabio later complained that fennel is "French." I suggest he visit Sicily.). This was exactly the kind of thing we were hoping for -- and expecting: a bowl we could all grab out of. With good stuff in it. Some sauce we could mop with bread.
Antonia "got" the challenge, perfectly. As she often does very well, she identified and managed expectations -- and delivered on them. If anything, this encouraged us to hope for more. The pasta course was next -- and three very talented chefs were on it! There was joy and anticipation at the table as Lorraine regaled us with stories from the making of Goodfellas and The Sopranos and we were excited by the promise of better things to come.
Instead, these three veteran chefs managed to f--k up THE WHOLE PASTA COURSE. Where we might have dreamed of some good, country-ass, rustic pasta -- we got cazzo instead. It is mind-boggling the bungled fundamentals, the elementary misunderstanding of basic Italian staples, the missed signals that went on in the kitchen during this course. Mike Isabella, at least, understood the challenge. His rigatoni with braised calamari and cherry tomatoes should have been great. The sauce (or the "gravy" as some old timers might call it), was just right: classic, familiar, delicious. But he'd ignored the very wise Junior Pellegrino who had advised earlier that "you can use dry pastas," and attempted to make
his own fresh rigatoni. It was hard, too tough and it didn't cook enough (I'm not convinced it ever could) -- as a result it never took in the sauce, and went down like a mouthful of bullets. To his credit, he knew. I have never seen a more unhappy, shamed, and repentant-looking contestant stand before us at Judges' Table. The usually brilliant Dale, who has been doing very well this season, also chose to ignore Junior's words of wisdom and attempted homemade fettucine with brussel sprouts, pancetta,
and pecorino--which also should have been good. The pasta was dry, brittle, and under-sauced so that it stuck together. While it is correct (or authentically Italian) when making pastas to use the sauce as condiment rather than the main event, this was so free of any kind of lube as to be
glued together, flavorless and unpleasant to eat. Even Lorraine, who had a very hard time saying anything bad about anybody at the table, remarked that had her boyfriend served her that plate of food he "wouldn't be getting laid tonight."