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Faux-hawks, Potty Mouths, and Pizzas

New York City restaurant critic Andrea Strong gives her, er, critique of the season premiere and lists a couple of her favorite pizza places in the city.

By Andrea Strong

Hi everyone! I'm so glad to be here to share this season with all of you and look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments as the weeks go by and the contestants slowly begin to dwindle.

How to Watch

Watch Top Chef Season 21 Wednesdays at 9/8c on Bravo and next day on Peacock.

Last night's premiere of Top Chef was quite a ride. First and foremost, I thought it demonstrated that the folks in casting are taking it up a notch stocking this season with some serious characters. They're also apparently really into faux-hawks. Will they be requiring this 'do for all contestants next season? Perhaps we can get Christian from Project Runway to be the hairstylist? Note to producers: Mix it up and go with mullets for next season!

Seriously though, I think this cast is going to make for a very exciting and scintillating season. Though I have to say, I was surprised at the number of New York contestants. I suppose it makes sense because we do have the best talent, but still. I was expecting to see some more diversity. I was also a bit surprised that they cast a couple. Then again, it does make for excellent drama. I'm curious to see how that relationship plays out as the competition gets tougher and more heated. Not to be a total nerd, but I was also rather shocked with the number of, well, potty mouths on the show. Ah, hello, Andrew, have you learned any other words in your 30 years other than those that start with "f," and end with "k?" Dale, you too! It's hard to get at what these guys are saying through all the f--king bleeps. While I'd love for them to clean it up a bit, it is pretty f-ing hilarious to listen to.

In any case, I thought the first episode threw us right back into fire of the fast and the furious kitchen at a good clip and showed us the weakest links in the group pretty quickly. It was clear to me early on that the Nimma was going home. Seasoning is a pretty big deal and she missed it on the Quickfire and overdid it on her Elimination Challenge. Plus, her excuse about the flan not setting because the plastic wrap was not on tight enough was pretty hilarious (also pathetic).

Speaking of weak links, while I think Andrew must know his way around a frying pan by his position at Le Cirque (according to one of the captions last night, he's a Le Cirque sous-chef), I was surprised at how stressed he got over a lack of mayonnaise in the Top Chef kitchen. When he couldn't find any, he started to freak out a bit. Excuse me, but are you kidding? Take a couple of egg yolks, get some oil, and a turn on your blender and quit your whining! Making mayonnaise is probably one of the easiest things to do, and it's also like the first thing you learn in culinary school. How could he not know how to make his own? It's like a baseball player not knowing how to field a ground ball. It's basic stuff. That was a real shock to me and to me raised a red flag. I'll be watching him carefully. (And trying to understand what the f--k he's saying.)I think overall, there are a three things I came away with after the first episode. First, the Top Chef Hairstyle is the Mohawk. (It's fierce.) Second, the Top Chef Word of the Season will be "f--k."

Finally, I'm going to start my own little award center here on my blog and give the Top Chef Quote of the Episode to Erik. Hands down, he had my favorite line of the night with his response to being blasted by the judges for his less than impressive rendition of a souffle: "I made glorified nachos and I'm not proud of it." You gotta love a guy who can take responsibility for his actions.

Anyway, before I say goodbye for this week, in honor of the show's first Quickfire -- the pizza challenge -- I decided to share two of my favorite new York pizza spots. Hope you enjoy them!

Una Pizza Napoletana (349 East 12th Street, 212-477-9950) Anthony Mangieri is the passionate 34-year old pizza artisan behind this cult favorite for handmade authentic Neapolitan pies. Mangieri practices the ancient art of authentic Neapolitan pizza -- pies made by a strict code enforced by the Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN), an organization formed in Italy in 1984 to safeguard traditional pizza making technique.Let's just get this point out of the way immediately: the dough, which is mixed (from natural yeast and 00 flour) and kneaded by hand daily at UPN, is nothing short of miraculous -- chewy but crisp at the edges, airy and light but with enough weight to hold up the melting pools of mozzarella. In fact, Mangieri stays open only as long as his dough supplies last; as soon as he runs out, the shop is closed.

But if you're looking for a peach, Taleggio, and sweet tea pie, go elsewhere (to Richard, perhaps?). Mangieri is a purist so your choices include the Margarita -- San Marzano tomatoes, imported buffalo mozzarella from Naples, hand-harvested Antica Salina Sicilian sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, and basil; the Marinara, topped with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh garlic, Sicilian sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, and wild oregano from Campania; the Bianca, a white pie made with buffalo mozzarella, fresh garlic, Sicilian sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, and basil; and finally, the Filletti -- a Bianca topped with sweet bursting cherry tomatoes. Believe me, once you try his pies, you'll never crave another topping.

Gonzo, 140 W 13th St, Btwn 6th & 7th Ave, 212-645-4606 While Una Pizza's Mangieri is a serious pizza purist, Vincent Scotto, the late and dearly beloved chef of Gonzo, was just a guy having fun with pizza and a grill. Scotto, who passed away tragically at the age of 39 just under a year ago (but whose recipes live on at Gonzo), opened his restaurant as an ode to the famous grilled pizzas of Al Forno in Rhode Island where he had cooked years ago.The bubbly grilled pizzas here are oblong in shape, sort of like mini surfboards, and they're pulled thin (but not too thin) and then grilled on an open flame so they get sweetened with smoke and get a slight char. Scotto loved lots of different flavor profiles and combinations and his menu offers about 6-8 different pizzas daily. The kitchen is happy to make you a combo pizza (half of one and half of the other) if you can't decide.

While you might want to start out with a Margherita -- a simple recipe of fresh tomatoes, Bel Paese and Romano cheeses -- my favorites are the Pumpkin with pancetta, caramelized onions, Bel Paese and Romano cheeses, the Wild Mushroom, with chanterelle, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, caramelized onions, Taleggio, Bel Paese and Romano cheeses, and the Sopressata layered with ricotta cheese, roasted red pepper puree, and his signature Bel Paese and Romano cheese mix.

Then again, I also like the Siciliano, topped with eggplant caponata, cumin-scented ricotta, Bel Paese and Romano cheeses, and the Smoked Mozzarella with sweet Sausage spicy tomato sauce flavored with lemon zest and roasted garlic.

Now you understand why it's so nice that they let you do half-and-half. Enjoy!

See you next week!


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