The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

More "Kitchen," Less "Boss"

Looks like Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro is well on his way to becoming TLC's answer to Food Network's Guy Fieri. You can hardly turn the channel on anymore without seeing his face!

First there was “Cake Boss.” Then came “The Next Great Baker.” Both of these shows are set in or around Buddy's home base, Hoboken's own “Carlo's Bakery,” and both play to his reputation as an extraordinary baker and pastry chef.

But now Buddy – or somebody at the network – feels the need to get out of the big kitchen and back to basics in the little kitchen. Not with cakes and pastries, but with down home Italian-style family cooking right from Buddy's “home” kitchen, populated by all the same lovable personaggi famiglia that populate his work environment, plus a few more.

Buddy seems like a nice guy. He really does. Just like Paula Deen seems like a really nice lady. But when it comes to television, they share the same shortcoming: extremely obvious and sometimes distracting regionalism. After ten minutes of listening to Paula's honey-coated, more-Southern-than-Scarlett O'Hara drawl in which she intones the word/phrase “y'all” at least sixty times per minute, you just want to climb the walls! Doesn't matter that what she's cooking is great stuff. I've lived in the South for thirty years and she's still way more Southern than almost anybody I know. Just mute the sound and read the captions to preserve your sanity.

Buddy has the same affliction. I know it's not his fault and I'm not holding it against him personally, but that high-pitched voice speaking in the thickest New Jersey-Italian accent this side of Hollywood casting, lobbing the phrase “youse guys” at decibel levels obviously designed to compete with the noise emanating from La Guardia, can make you just as crazy just as quickly.

Maybe the TLC execs believe that Buddy is more “authentic Italian” because he looks, acts, and sounds like somebody you'd find on the set of “Goodfellas.” However, it should be noted that Mario Batali, Michael Chiarello, Giada De Laurentiis, Rocco DiSpirito, and even the ubiquitous Guy Fieri are all Italians who manage to represent their culture and heritage on TV without making the viewer feel like he's watching a weird mixture of Julia Child and “Jersey Shore.” “Fuhgeddaboudit!”

That said, if you can get past the stereotypes and hone in on the premise of the show, you might come away pleasantly surprised. Valastro doesn't have any pretensions about being being another Mario Batali or any of the other aforementioned chefs. He tells you right up front that he's just a guy from a food-loving Italian family who learned to cook Italian family favorites by hanging around the kitchen with his parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and grabbing a spoon now and then to help out. He doesn't go in for the fancy, upscale dishes comprised of ingredients that only sophisticated foodies can find or afford. He doesn't wax poetic over white truffles and he doesn't make you feel like a schlub if your eggplant doesn't come from a certain field on a certain hill in a specific part of a defined area in a particular province of Italy. He prides himself on preparing simple food in a simple manner, which is the real essence of Italian cooking, after all.

His style, however, may be a little too simple for the know-nothing novice tuning in to pick up some culinary tips and tricks. Those of us who grew up in the kitchen may be comfortable enough with Buddy's “dump in a little bit of this and add a little bit of that” approach to cooking, but for the average person who requires detailed printed instructions for heating up a can of soup, there might be a need for some more in depth information.

It should be mentioned that said detailed information is available at TLC's website and little text blurbs to that effect pop up on the screen as Buddy cooks, but a lot of people simply won't bother.

Not that Buddy isn't a good cook. I've already ripped off two of his recipes. He's just not much of an instructor, that's all. There's a lot of “do this and this and this” in his presentation but not a lot of reasons why you “do this and this and this.” Like maybe he doesn't really know himself and he's just parroting the things he learned at his nonna's knee.

It was one of those things that makes me seriously question Buddy's Italian cooking credibility: I watched in absolute horror as Buddy broke a package of spaghetti in half before putting it in the water to cook! He said something to the effect of “that's the way Mama did it, so that's the way I do it.” I'm sorry, paison, but there is not one single, solitary, reputable Italian cook anywhere on the planet – and certainly not in Italy – who would advocate breaking up spaghetti like that. Before somebody jumps me, let me qualify that there are a few specific dishes for which you might do it, but for general purposes it is an amateurish no-no, regardless of how Mama did it. It comes under the heading “If God had intended spaghetti to be only three inches long, He would have made it that way to begin with.”

Watching Buddy make cakes leaves you awestruck. Watching him cook Italian food – eh, not so much. Not yet, anyway.

I'm willing to give him a try, though. Giada was pretty awful on a few of her earliest televised endeavors. And at least Buddy didn't grate his finger to a bloody pulp on his first outing like Mario did. Maybe as he gains a little confidence and experience in his new surroundings, he'll tone down the character and pump up the content. For now, “Kitchen Boss” needs to be less “Boss” and more “Kitchen.”

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