Russian judges dressed like late-period Elvis eating Cantonese food, early-morning lines around the block at the Hudson Bay Company’s official Olympic store, Italian skiing superstar Alberto Tomba “la Bomba” addressing the international press corps, packs of similarly sized athletes moving through the streets—French biatheletes here, Italian figure skaters there—and Canada logo-wear as far as the eye can see, there’s no question I have been to Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Sadly, the only sporting events I saw were projected on a giant screen in Casa Italia with commentary provided by the Italian television station Rai Uno in Italian. (I’m still not sure how to say “triple toe loop” in Italian.) But that doesn’t mean I didn’t witness fierce international competition first hand. In fact, I competed on a winning team.
As part of our official Italian role here as a “brain trust” (that’s the Italian word for that) gathered to help promote authentic Italian foods to North America, we participated in a culinary competition between native Italian chef Cesare Casella of Salumeria Rosi in Manhattan and native New Yorker Rick Moonen of RM Seafood restaurant in Las Vegas. The competition was held at the snazzy Dirty Apron cooking school.
A not-so-secret market basket of ingredients included authentic Italian products, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, tomatoes, and pasta. (Unfortunately, Cesare’s 30 pounds of salumi were rejected by Canadian customs.)
The challenge: to prepare three dishes that showcase the Italian ingredients and reflect the sophistication and simplicity typical of the best Italian cooking.
The judges: five Italian Olympians, including Italian ice-dancing couple of Massimo Scali and Federica Faiella, who finished in fifth place the night before, and the Italian multiple world champion gymnast, Juri “Lord of the Rings” Chechi. Sky News broadcast the competition for a Europe-wide audience.
I was selected by team Casella. Our routine began with a simple pasta al pomodoro, the twist being that Cesare cooked the pasta directly in the tomato sauce. No boiling salt water in sight. Flavored simply with olive oil and basil and finished with Parmigiano Reggiano, the pasta was a bowlful of elegant simplicity, a true taste of Italy. (I’ll test and post a recipe using this unusual technique as soon as I’m back in my kitchen.) Moonen’s team cooked a delicate seafood spaghetti and finished it with a jolt of umami provided by colatura di alici, an ancient condiment from Campania made from fermented anchovies. The colatura must have tickled the taste buds of the judges, who declared Moonen the winner of the first round.
For the second portion of our program…er…menu Casella presented a simple slice of mozzarella di bufala with a roasted tomato, a drizzle of aceto balsamico and a fennel frond. Moonen’s team brought out a raw oyster on a bed of shaved ice dressed with a sauce of fennel vinegar, orange, and shallot. Next we made a salad of scrambled egg, fresh herbs, and cirspy pancetta tossed with mesclun. Going for the quad, Cesare added a fourth course of mussels and clams steamed in a spicy tomato broth. Despite Moonen’s early lead, Casella took the medal for best overall competition. (The news scoring system produces occasional surprises.)
It was a world-class competition. Next up, freestyle cooking…