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"You don't know what you'll do under pressure. Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester." - Bobby Womack
Rao's, on 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, is a New York institution that very, very few New Yorkers have ever had the privilege to ever eat at. It's legendarily the most difficult restaurant to get into in America. You can't get a table. I can't get a table. Tables are basically "owned" by long-time regulars or friends. If you are lucky enough to enjoy the Rao's experience, chances are you gotta know somebody. Politicians and high-ranking law enforcement officials like it. So, apparently, do high-ranking members of a certain Italian fraternal organization. A few years ago, one alleged member of this latter organization, taking umbrage with the rude behavior of a member from another chapter, had words with the fellow just outside, ultimately choosing to resolve the matter by shooting him dead. In October, just after the filming of this episode of Top Chef, the FBI, pursuing an inquiry into the alleged activities of a certain Teddy "Skinny" Persico, (nephew of the notorious boss, Carmine "The Snake" Persico, paid a visit to the tiny restaurant in this last Italian enclave of East Harlem, removing from a prominent position on the wall (just under a portrait of original owner, Vincent Rao) a photo of a gentleman known as Joey "Cupcakes." If the "Family" theme of this week's Elimination Challenge wasn't made clear enough
by Rao's owner Frankie Pellegrino (who has, just to drive the Family thing home harder, appeared as an actor in such films as Goodfellas, and such shows as The Sopranos), or the appearance of his son, Frank Junior, or Chef Dino, then it was stated explicitly: Cook a family freaking meal in an alleged Family-frequented restaurant that's served the same family-style Southern Italian and Italian-American classics for over 100 freakin' years. By the way, you'll be serving that family-style -- all in one plate or bowl in the center of the table. And you'll be serving it to a family. Capisce? Frankie even said: "Cook an Italian feast for me and my family." You would think that if ever some of our culinary contenders had a clear shot at absolutely crushing a challenge, this was it. But no. In the end, three skilled, experienced professionals stood before the Commission, hanging their heads in shame, guilty of the unpardonable sin of Crimes Against Pasta, waiting to see who among them would get whacked.
I wasn't around for the Quickfire, so maybe I missed why Padma was dressed like a Superfriend. Challenged to design dishes for their aesthetic value only, we got a delightful glimpse of some of our cheftestants' psyches. Angelo's "homage" to designer Roberto Cavalli went over like a bag of crap with designer Isaac Mizrahi (something you could see coming a mile off). Mizrahi, clearly not a Cavalli fan, compared Angelo's scrawling on the table to the work of Charles Manson. And there is something a little sinister about Angelo, now that I think about it. He's always smiling and talking about love and stuff. Somebody should probably take a peek in the chest freezer in his basement. I'm just sayin'. Fabio's "Woman Walking in Rain" piece, as illustrated in melting tuna, offered a curious window into his soul -- and new meaning to the catch-word "versatunatility." Looked good though. Dale had a bad beginning to what ended up being an even worse following day. Richard's "Black Sunday" took the win. 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."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. Early in my marriage, my wife's primary complaint when I tried to cook for her was "Baby, you put too many things!" I learned quickly -- from her and from my in-laws -- what even years cooking in good Italian restaurants had not entirely cured me of: That one should never complicate Italian food. That they are not kidding when they say they want the ingredients to speak for themselves. They want to taste the pasta. They want to taste the principle ingredients. Angelo buried his pork chop in sauce and garnish. It didn't suck, but it missed the point. Richard -- who has been on some kind of weird schnitzel-jag lately -- did a breaded, fried pancetta, which, while tasty, was over-unctuous with all the fried exterior. Fabio, thank God, saved us all from what had been turning into a very ugly mood at the table, by choosing to make Chicken Cacciatore. Better yet, he served it with perfectly-executed creamy polenta--instantly bringing back happy memories to everyone at the table. I became momentarily lost in reverie for a crummy looking but wonderful place near Minerba Del Garda, where they serve it with tiny little birds that have been roasted on a spit. You make a well in the polenta and pour the rendered fat into it. Heaven. Fabio almost took this one home--but the feeling among the judges was that the chicken was a little over-herbed. The perfect choice of dishes for the crowd, true. And nicely done. But the chicken itself fell just short of wonderful. Antonia's damn mussels, simplest, easiest goddamn thing in the world to make, were, in fact, wonderful. They made the people at the table happy. And that's what family is all about.