Reservations about Risotto at Rao's

Reservations about Risotto at Rao's

The Rao's challenge and the Italian dishes the chefs created struck a personal cord for Tom Colicchio.

In New York, where Chinatown abuts Little Italy, it stands to reason that where there was a Chinese food challenge, one featuring Italian-American fare could not be too far behind.

And what better place for it than Raos? As anyone in New York will tell you, Rao's is the quintessential Italian-American restaurant. But from most of them, it'll be hearsay. That's because its famously nearly impossible to get a reservation at Rao's. Rao's has been in the same location since it first opened in 1896, it has only 10 tables in the entire place, the restaurant does one seating per table per night, and for many decades now, the tables have been spoken for every night of the week.

Now, those with standing reservations know that if they're not using the table on their night, they'd best get friends and family to stand in for them those seats must be filled. And they do. So when you call the reservation line, you will likely get a recording telling you that the restaurant has no reservations available for the coming year call back again next year. I ate at Rao's once prior to this Elimination Challenge, when a table for six was auctioned off at a fund raiser and the winning bidder invited me to join the party.

It was good Southern-Italian fare (i.e., as made by Italian-Americans, as I'll discuss shortly), reminiscent of that of my childhood, both at restaurants such as Spirito's and DiMartino's in Elizabeth, NJ (and even Chestnut Tavern in Union, NJ, the second restaurant in which I ever worked), and at home.

Our presence at the dinner table was required every night when I was growing up, and most especially on Sundays, when family around the table expanded to include aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Sunday dinner was served between three and four in the afternoon and always included three courses. We started with a salad of some sort, an antipasto. We'd next have gravy and macaroni (we never called it sauce and pasta), and we'd then have the meat that had been cooked in the gravy as our third course. We wouldn't deviate from that, be it spring, summer, fall or winter.
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.Some of our chefs understood the challenge and rose to it. Even Mike understood it; his problem was one of execution. He treated the pasta he made as though it hadn't been put through an extruder. It was going to take a very long time to cook. What saved Mike from elimination was the flavor of his sauce, which was good.

Dale's dish didnt work either. I believe it wasnt kneaded enough, and the ingredients didn't come together. With his mushrooms and brussels sprouts, Dale would have been better off using dried pasta, as it has more semolina, which is a harder wheat and holds up better. He could have tossed the ingredients with olive oil, and the whole dish would have turned out better. I think a lot of people who say they don't like pasta have been given too many dishes like Dale's. Even so, though, neither his dish nor Mike's was as bad as Tre's.

Unfortunately for Tre, he wound up creating something that many people think risotto is supposed to be. About 15 years ago, for whatever reason, people tried to mold risotto into a ring stand. This is simply wrong. Risotto should be soupy. If you go to Italy, you'll be served it that way; ditto, a good Italian restaurant here. Tre's risotto wasnt even creamy. The starch should go into the stock and the risotto should run on a flat plate and not hold its form at all. Furthermore, risotto continues to cook and harden further after you stop cooking it, so you need to be even more careful when cooking it to make sure it's creamy. And, finally, the flavors should be integrated into the dish, not heaped on top of it, as Tre's were. Tre made a dish he didn't understand, and we couldn't give him a pass for the fact that he was taught incorrectly. Both the texture and the flavors were way, way off. Just as it was clear to all that Antonia's dish was the evening's best, it was clear that Tre's was the evening's worst. I wish him all the best he was a gracious competitor from start to finish.From here on in there is nobody left who doesn't have a huge fan base. Every time we send someone home, I know we'll be getting a lot of flack.

So it goes. There can only be one Top Chef. That's why youre watching, right? That, and, as Tre said in his exit interview, to win a lot of knowledge, a lot of good friends, and to become a better chef. Have a good week.

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