Let me point out for the edification of readers by the way, that there is NOTHING WRONG WITH USING DRY PASTA. Italians like it -- and often even prefer it. Fresh pasta -- unless it's a filled cut like ravioli or tortelloni -- is more of a special event thing. Most often, when cooking long cut pastas, Italians will reach for any one of the many, many perfectly excellent dry pastas. They are often more pleasantly "toothsome" (for lack of a better word), easier to achieve the ideal "al dente" with, and they
often "eat better" in the bowl -- taking on any of scores of sauces or garnishes (be they simple or complex) better and more forgivingly. Especially if you're throwing a lot of it in a big bowl family-style where it's likely to sit for a while.
I will tell you that had one of these contestants made a simple 25-minute pomodoro sauce with a mix of canned Italian plum tomatoes and a few fresh ones, a few cloves of garlic and a couple of leaves of basil, then served it properly with some linguine out of a box, they could have walked away with this challenge. That would have made a lot of Italian-Americans at that table very happy. Hell, no reason to be so authentic: A good bowl of spaghetti and f--kin' meatballs could have stolen the day. While that old warhorse may be about as Italian as a Chicken Caesar, it is, at least Italian-American -- and about as perfect for the room as one could ask (as both the room and that dish are probably about the same age -- and came up together).
Which brings us to Tre. There's a horrifying scene early in the great Stanley Tucci film, Big Night, where a customer in the dining room of a very fine Italian chef, complains about her seafood risotto. "It's jus t… rice!" she gripes, before asking for a side of spaghetti and meatballs. I saw the film in a roomful of chefs and you could hear the collective gasp, the wince of pain, as that theater full of professionals who understood risotto felt -- in their bones -- the familiar agony of this basic misunderstanding of what should be one of the world's most sublime dishes. Simply put, risotto is about the rice. Expensive arborio rice, whose subtle textures and flavors need to be nurtured, cherished and respected. A good bowl of risotto is never overcomplicated with too many ingredients or garnishes. It is never buried in seafood or vegetables or mushrooms or even truffles. It is always -- and forever -- first -- about the rice. One of the most famous seafood risottos, from an island off Venice, has no seafood in it at all--just its extracted essence, delicately, delicately coaxed into broth. Attention must be paid constantly during the cooking process, first toasting the individual grains (in most cases) on the bottom of the pan, then slowly, gradually, feeding in small amounts of broth, stirring constantly to incorporate it. When finished it should be soft -- and almost porridgy, but with each distinct grain still possessing a bit of bite. It should lay flat on the plate. Never sit up in a mound. To cook Italian food well, one needs to have eaten good Italian food. And I can only guess that Tre has never eaten a good risotto. There is no shame in this -- as most risottos in most American restaurants -- even some well regarded ones -- are criminally screwed up. One of the most common transgressions is by the "genius" chef who sees risotto as a medium or delivery system for some clever and expensive garnishes -- and I suspect Tre has been subjected to more than a few of these both as a diner and during his training. His mentors did him a disservice here. He made a very flavorful vegetable garnish (a lot of it) and buried his risotto with it. He did not cook the risotto correctly -- at all. It was thick, gluey, and closer to cement than one of God's Own Primi Piatti. In a field of offenders, it was quickly agreed by the judges whose screw-up was most egregious. By his admission, he just didn't know. While an understandable lapse for most, not so for a Top Chef. It was with regret that the judges sent Tre packing. An accomplished and talented professional, I have no doubt at all that the next time I see him, he will be making excellent risotto.