So this was very close to my heart, this whole challenge. I was glad to be back with the owners and staff of Rao's, as well as with Lorraine Bracco, who had judged our first finale, and Tony Bourdain, and I was looking forward to seeing how our chefs would approach this challenge and what they would serve.
When I was growing up, chicken cacciatore was one of my mother's staples. She made it every two weeks or so and she made a good one. Fabio did, too. The flavors were great. That said, Antonia's dish was simply better. So much so, in fact, that it was the unanimous choice, not just of the judges, but of every single person at the table. Everything about it came together perfectly, and it was great. Truth be told, I don't even care that much for mussels. They're OK, but I have never been a big fan. And yet, that said, I felt definitively that Antonia's dish was the best of the evening. Anyone who writes to challenge the decision clearly did not taste the dish. Not only was Antonia's dish executed beautifully, but it also captured the spirit of the challenge of evoking family at the table in a simple and unforced way.
Fabi'os comment that mussels are French missed an important point and was, therefore, off the mark. The chefs were not asked to make Italian food, but, rather, to be inspired by what generations of Raos and Pellegrinos have done at Rao's, which is homey Italian-American food. When my father's family came over to the States from Italy, absolutely no one was importing Italian ingredients. His family had to incorporate into their cooking traditions the foods available to them here. As a result, the dishes have changed over time. People are invariably surprised when they go to Southern Italy and first sample the food, saying, "Oh, the foods very different!" Of course it is. My grandmother's family tried to bring seeds back with them from Italy, to grow the produce they knew, but largely they adapted their recipes and created new family favorites. Torisso, a new reaturant on Mulberry Street in New York, is an homage to this very aspect of the Italian-American experience. In a nod to our parents and grandparents, two Italian-American chefs, both French-trained, decided to do an Italian restaurant using only American ingredients.
Being from Italy, Fabio could not appreciate this fact when he asserted that Antonia's dish was French. But the three owners of Rao's, the manager, the chef, and the bartender of 40 years begged to differ with him.