This past Saturday I dragged Sam to Top Chef Fan Favorite, Fabio Viviani’s Cooking Demo and Book Signing—well, it wasn’t the kicking-and-screaming kind of dragging, since Cafe Firenze is one of our favorite restaurants. (Click here for my restaurant review >>)
This time I had the foresight to let them know I’d be coming, and smart business man that he is, Fabio personally responded, guaranteeing me a good seat.
He wasn’t phased by the slightly unstable setup, in their first time using the light and spacious patio—this time only turning away fifty, instead of the usual one hundred fans. He jokingly removed item by item as they jiggled while he pounded the poor pork on the vibrating table!
The general tone, as he passionately shared memories and family traditions, was very laid back—more like hanging out with him over good eats and drinks, than watching him sweat over a hot stove, attempting to teach us how to cook.
His mother, Renza, refused to give up the family’s precious recipes unless he agreed to publicly share what he put her through as a boy. (Payback!)
He still had to coax details out of her, since “sausage. and. beans.”—her typical recipe instructions—just wouldn’t cut it for a cookbook.
Should be very entertaining!
When he was five, after unintentionally setting her on fire, his 87-year-old great-grandma, Maria, kept little “Fabiolino” by her side in the kitchen, to keep him out of trouble, and contain his abundant energy and penchant for mischief! Stirring polenta and apple cake for hours on end, he learned from her to “do it right, or do it twice.”
Already displaying character, to help feed his family, he took a night job when he was eleven (ELEVEN!), when his mom had to quit her job because of a problem with her hands. He would unload fifty-pound bags of flour and carry pies from the 120 degree basement to the 10 degree pie store from 1 – 7am—causing him to be sick and miss school, and get suspended. No wonder he hates baking!
“It’s not about how bad I had it but about how good I want it from now on.”
He Keeps it Simple
As a child, he only had one pair of shoes, slept on a folding chair in the kitchen, and lived on eggs from their forty chickens, fruits and veggies from his grandpa’s garden, and whatever ingredients they could get their hands on. I’m sure that having grown up in Italy on so little, our over-privileged, gadget-buying, over-measuring, “American” habits must be quite amusing.
It was good to be a chicken in his house; better to get 365 eggs a year than one roast chicken! For one who grew up not cooking his chicken friends, he sure has a lot of yummy chicken recipes in his cookbook!
You could just picture those warm, fresh eggs popping out of his chickens!
“Don’t get caught up in recipes”
There’s definitely a lesson to be learned from him—by me anyway! Though, not having had the privilege of watching a grandmother, or mother, or aunt (or too lazy to pay attention when young—now regretting it!), I didn’t always know how much to season, and loved recipes with details!
“You pinch salt like pinching someone’s butt; two fingers you don’t get anything, but with three you can get the whole cheek!”
In contrast, my main mission for newbie cooks is to provide the minute details that I wish had been included in recipes, when I first started cooking.
But there’s no substitute for just getting down and dirty and cooking!
“If you want to keep your body clean you gotta get your hands dirty”
If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that I, too, subscribe to his Mediterranean way of eating; I believe that fat-free, sugar-free (taste-free) foods leave you feeling unsatisfied, and you end up over-indulging.
Chef John’s Tapenade
We started with warm, homemade focaccia bread, with wonderful, fresh tapenade from ground black olives and cooked garlic. (I was too busy eating to pay attention to the other ingredients that John graciously shared with us.)
Fabio’s Mom’s Meatballs
Fabio prefers “more flavorful” beef (80/20) over pork or veal, and adds ricotta cheese to keep them moist.
You know it’s good when Sam (Mr. can’t-boil-an-egg) says: I’m going to make those meatballs!
“They stay super moist—regardless of how much you cook or overcook them.” (Perfect for Sam’s first time cooking; Kraft Mac & Cheese doesn’t count!)
Don’t tell Sam—or Fabio—that we’ll be trying them with Laura’s Lean Beef (92%) and low fat ricotta cheese—I’ll let you know how they turn out!
Fabio insists on not searing or baking them, but cooks them right in the tomato “sauce” (don’t dare call it “gravy!”) like his grandmother did; to keep them moist, and make for better freezing.
Fabio Cooking Tip: Use canned tomatoes in your sauce because they have better texture than fresh tomatoes.
I was a bit skeptical to see the raw onion go straight into the mixture (they turned out to be shallots when I checked the book), but they were as moist and tasty as promised.
Serve them with chopped Italian parsley; he hates cilantro: “Even goats don’t eat cilantro.” (What about Mexican goats, Fabio?)
“Milanese was invented because there was no money to buy meat”
He showed us how to stretch a tiny piece of pork; by pounding and breading it!
Fabio’s Cooking Tip: Use one hand for wet and one hand for dry so you don’t get a breaded hand.
The book calls for veal, but he was advised to use pork in the demo, so as not to offend anyone.
Though he doesn’t get what anyone has against the poor pig!
On a serious note, he’s very considerate about the proper care and treatment of animals. Together with Steven Spielberg and three other high profile people, he’s an Ambassador for the American Humane Association.
I learned that a lemon has more sugar in it than a strawberry—who knew!
The grilled lemons looked gorgeous, but my lemon was still pretty tart after the grilling supposedly brought out all that sugar!
Loved the fresh salad on top created by Chef John. (Recipe please, Chef John!)
Last week I gave my very first cooking demo to some girlfriends, and the only difference between my “Parmesan Chicken” and his “Pork Milanese” (well, except for the very obvious difference that mine was chicken and his was pork!) is that I also use “Seasoned Italian Breadcrumbs”, together with the Panko and Parmesan.
Orna demonstrating “Parmesan Chicken”
Left to Right: Kharen Bernstein, Shazia Pascal, Nina Silver, Jen Korkis, Sloane Sevran
I wonder what Mr. Italy would think of the commercial Italian crumbs!
My Parmesan Chicken will soon be up on OrnaBakes!
Click here for the Gnudi: Spinach and Ricotta Dumplings (low carb pasta fix) >>
Sam did ask why Fabio’s was crispier than mine…?
Using only Panko breadcrumbs definitely make for a crispier crust; and I’m guessing he used more oil, creating that pan-fried crispy crust. (I use a little EVOO and a pat of butter.)
Fabio Cooking Tip: He had regular olive oil in a squeeze bottle which he mixed with the Extra Virgin Olive Oil in the glass bottle, so as not to waste the good stuff.
After his soliloquy about his food being so low calorie, and a great way to loose weight, maybe next time I’ll have to use a full six tablespoons of olive oil!
“Two hundred calories for the meatball, two hundred calories for the milanese, and two hundred calories for the Tiramisu.”
Hmm. Really? Seems a little too good to be true!
I’ve never been a fan of Tiramisu, but after watching him ingest about 4 spoonfuls of that gorgeous Mascarpone cheese before, during, and after whipping it, I just had to try it.
“You need seven spoons for this recipe!”
I didn’t get to the “dark bitter coffee” soaked biscuits (sans liquor because there were minors), because I didn’t feel like being up all night, and soggy biscuits just aren’t my thing; but the mascarpone cream was as smooth and luscious as it looks—definitely worthy!
Especially after Mr. Charming convinced us that it has the same calories as two Oreo Cookies. (Might have to do the math on that one!)
Speaking of dessert… do you think he tried my fresh-baked Oaty Chews?
Talented Executive Chef, John, admitted to trying one of my Oaty Chews (my modern spin on traditional South African “Crunchies”), describing them as chewy and flavorful. When I asked if he had any advice, he said, “Don’t change a thing.”
Orna and Executive Chef John Paolone
Disappointingly, I have yet to receive a thank you from Chef Alex Guarnaschelli, after taking the time to make them for her.
I’m hoping that Fabio tried them, and will give me honest feedback; being that part of his business is food and restaurant consulting.
After the demo, we snuck out the back door to get our books signed before the mob scene arrived!
Megan was there to lend a helping hand with the signing—though he didn’t seem to need it!
Fabio’s Italian Kitchen—NY Times Bestseller—is more a “memoir” to keep by your bedside, than a regular cookbook to leave in the kitchen.
His touching stories and simple recipes will inspire you to find your inner chef—to be positive, cook with confidence, and share your kitchen with your kids and grandkids!
If you don’t read the whole book, you’ll miss that “salt” always means “kosher salt,” and “parsley” always means “Italian flat parsley.” (You probably would’ve guessed that one!)
He respects Italian tradition; emphasizing simple ingredients, and teaching cooking common sense!
A lot of work and care went into this book—it’s like Fabio’s heart on a plate!
If you think he’s just a pretty face who can make pasta, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I have a newfound respect for his wealth of knowledge and culinary experience—working in a Trattoria in Firenze at age 14, and running their kitchen by age 19.
“A wish without a plan is just a dream”
Fabio had built up a small empire of restaurants, clubs, and bars in Florence, but moved to Los Angeles in 2005, at age 27—not speaking a word of English—having never set foot outside of Europe, and started all over again. (Can you imagine the culture shock?)
Don’t mistake his confidence and sharp wit for arrogance. This is a very smart business man, who knows how to work a crowd …and the system!
That’s why the ladies flock to his classes and restaurants from near and far. (Some with stuffed animals…?)
But his cookbook and classes are very man-friendly! (If it inspired Sam to cook, it must be good!)
I love the tongue-in-cheek English names at the top of each page, and the Italian name in Italics underneath.
It’s like Fabio is sitting in your kitchen, sharing the story behind each creation, and telling you what to do with all the ingredients; actually, not “telling” but more like “encouraging” you to find your own way, as he lightly pokes fun at your silly, non-common-sense way of cooking!
The gorgeous, mouth-watering illustrations, by Matt Armendariz, detail and demystify the cooking steps and methods.
A picture really does paint a thousand words!
I had the pleasure of making his acquaintance and watching Matt in action at popular Huckleberry Cafe in Santa Monica, where he was photographing the highly-anticipated cookbook from Pastry Chef Zoe Nathan.
Matt Armendariz in action at Huckleberry Cafe
Santa Monica, CA
I’m trying to get Matt to take some time out of his busy schedule to give me a photography lesson—and blogging advice—since he also has a successful food blog, MattBites, and a fabulous book, Food Photography for Bloggers.
The book is a progression of Fabio’s life, and of recipes; starting with simpler, easier ones (Fabio’s Tomato Sauce), and then incorporating those into the more complicated ones (Braised Veal Shanks).
I’m seriously considering going “Julia and Julia” on Fabio, and cooking the whole book from recipe 1 through 147—though the cover misleadingly advertises “over 100 recipes.”
“147” is a lot more than “100” if you’re going to make every single one!
Recipes I Can’t Wait to Try
- The Apple Cake with Grappa looks divine.
- Brutti Ma Buoni (“Ugly But Good”) Cookies—I usually make them with almonds, so I’m curious to try his. I usually stay away from hazelnuts, because blanching them seems like a pain. I’ll see if I can find some already blanched ones!
- Braised Veal Shanks (Ossobuco) with My Grandma’s Gremolata
- Chicken with Marsala Sauce
- Chicken Piccata with Radicchio on Top—sounds simple and delish.
- Drunken Chicken
- Gnocchi with Meat Sauce and Ricotta Salata
- Grandma’s Roasted Chicken—which helped him win on Top Chef Semi-Finals, despite a broken finger!
- Roasted Vegetables with Balsamic Vinaigrette—You’ll have to buy the book to see why he calls them “Roasted Old Ladies”
Now I just have to get Fabio to share my Oaty Chews with his his Facebook (57,699) and Twitter (69,160) fans!
What do you say, Fabio? Will you help me go viral?
You Might Also Like
- Restaurant Review: Cafe Firenze, Moorpark, CA >>
- Orna’s Oaty Chews (traditional South African “Crunchies”)—oatmeal, coconut, and chocolate (if you dare) squares-of-goodness >>
- Orna’s Weight Loss Journey (with before and after pics) >>
- Meeting Alex Guarnaschelli: Iron Chef, Chopped Judge >>
- Gnudi: Spinach and Ricotta Dumplings—low carb pasta fix >>