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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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Grazie mille!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Review: Giada, The Cromwell, Las Vegas, Nevada


A True Gem Among Rhinestones

Okay, anybody who knows me knows that I'm a particular fan of Giada De Laurentiis. I became a fan during her “Everyday Italian” days on Food Network, back when the network was actually worth watching. In addition to being a talented chef, I've always found her to be a nice person. I've actually met Giada, spoken with her, spent time with her and have frequently defended her against shallow detractors who criticize her for her appearance. Is there a more absurd reason to “hate” a person?

Anyway, I was excited when Giada made the announcement in 2014 that she was opening a restaurant in Las Vegas, joining the ranks of many other “celebrity” chefs with eponymous eateries there. And I was even more excited when I finally got the opportunity to dine at her signature place.

I don't much like Las Vegas in general. It's just not my scene. In the first place, with apologies to Elvis, the “bright light city” doesn't so much “set my soul on fire” as it just burns up my wallet. I'm not fond, for example, of shelling out ten dollars for a Coke and a candy bar. I don't gamble, I don't like crowds, I don't like noise, I don't like drunks, and I especially don't like crowds of noisy, gambling drunks. And I object to being accosted by grubby pornslappers who pop their smutty little cards at me every ten feet as I walk along The Strip. After all, why should I patronize them when I can, as the numerous rolling billboard trucks proclaim, have girls delivered “direct to your room” just like a pizza? Thank you. No.

I do, however, appreciate the vibrant Vegas food scene. Just about every “famous” chef I know either personally or through various media has a place in “The Entertainment Capital of the World.” Tom Colicchio, Gordon Ramsay, Emeril Lagasse, Masahara Morimoto, Buddy Valastro, Joel Robuchon, Guy Fieri, Wolfgang Puck, Jose Andres, Robert Irvine......the list is extensive to say the least. But it was on Giada's place at The Cromwell that I was focused this trip.

We had a 9 p.m. reservation, but between being seriously jet lagged and frankly tired of all the throngs crowding The Strip, we showed up early with the intention of just sitting quietly at the bar until nine if necessary. Fortunately, it wasn't: thanks to a very friendly and accommodating staff, we were seated within about thirty minutes. But our relatively brief sojourn at the bar was quite comfortable and pleasant. We were attended to promptly and settled in to enjoy a nice Pinot Noir (hers) and a cool glass of Peroni (mine). When we were seated, we were quite well seated, thank you, at one of the coveted window tables overlooking The Strip below and the adjacent fountains of the Bellagio. The restaurant's huge retractable windows were open on a pleasant autumn evening, enabling us to take in all the dazzling sights and cacophonous sounds from a nice safe perch on the hotel's second floor.

The ambiance and d├ęcor are very much reflective of Giada, including works by her artist friend, Darren Quinn. Giada fans and viewers will recognize his “Amore” from her TV show set. There are also some wonderful portraits of her, her grandfather, Dino, and her beautiful grandmother, Silvana Mangano displayed near the bar. It's an elegant and sophisticated vibe that is at the same time quite understated and soothing in the midst of all the surrounding glitz and faux glamour.

I don't know where Giada (the restaurant) found Fred, but I wish he could be cloned or at the very least loaned out to train every server at every eating place in the country. Friendly, personable, efficient, and knowledgeable, Fred was a joy. He was perfectly professional without being the least bit pretentious or stuffy. He never hovered, but he was never far away. His familiarity with every dish was impressive, although I do wish he'd learn to pronounce “mascarpone.” The flat, American-accented “mahs-car-POHN” was a bit grating, but that's just the annoying purist in me. Fred's recommendations were spot on and he seemed genuinely pleased when we were genuinely pleased by them. Obviously somebody who enjoys his craft and is not just collecting a paycheck.

Whoever was running the kitchen the night we were there (I know it wasn't Giada) also obviously enjoys their craft and is extremely good at it. The food was absolutely delicious. Giada features a unique fusion of Giada De Lauretiis' personal “authentic Italian meets modern California” style. By and large, it's lighter fare that doesn't necessarily sacrifice any of the traditional Italian taste.

My wife was especially amazed by her ravioli with Brussels sprouts and brown butter. She has never met a Brussels sprout she enjoyed – until now. Her fulsome praise of the cook on the vegetable and her equally enthusiastic enjoyment of the delicately unctuous brown butter were the talk of the evening. My bucatini pasta dish was also enjoyable, with a sweetly tangy pomodoro sauce and perfectly cooked pasta. Well, the al dente texture was perfect. The pasta itself could have benefited from just a teensie bit more salt. I know a lot of places have to cook to the lowest common denominator of misinformed patrons who are convinced that the slightest amount of salt in their food will lead them straight to hardened arteries and an early grave, but I was somewhat disappointed that the cooks at Giada would fall into that. Giada knows, as every Italian does, that salt – in what some consider egregious amounts – is the only way to flavor pasta. There was a little dish of flake salt on our table, placed there to compliment some incredible bread, and I crushed and sprinkled the tiniest pinch of it over my dish to immediately discernible results. The minuscule addition made the tomato flavor in the sauce pop even more. But again, I'm a purist and a cook. Others may not have noticed or appreciated the difference.

And these were porzioni veramente italiane, truly Italian portions. No huge overflowing platters of food. These were perfectly plated individual portions, not great piles designed to feed ravenous hordes like you usually find in “Italian” places.

Speaking as I was of the bread, a complimentary plate of ciabatta and an olive oil rosemary bread was absolutely to die for when combined with a selection of condiments that included the aforementioned flake salt, some capers, some peperoncino, an herbed olive oil, and an insanely good lemon mascarpone butter. I'm definitely stealing that last one.

I'd also like to steal the hot cocoa souffle that capped our incredible meal. A fresh-baked hot chocolate souffle that was deflated tableside and filled with rich chocolate sauce and served next to a scoop of creamy marshmallow gelato. Buonissimo! Perfetto! Delizioso! And a whole bunch of other Italian superlatives.

Did this heavenly repast come cheap? Oh, hell no. My credit card went straight to ICU. But you know what? The food, the service, the atmosphere, the entire experience was worth every penny and I'll eagerly do it again next time I'm in town. Just don't think you're going to Olive Garden when you cross the threshold at Giada. The food is obviously superior to anything you'll ever get at such a place, but be aware that you'll get a lot less for a lot more.

Giada is located on the second floor of The Cromwell Hotel & Casino at 3595 S. Las Vegas Blvd. They serve a weekend brunch Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and are open from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. those days. Monday through Thursday hours are 5 p.m until 10:30. Parking? Yeah, right. This is Vegas, baby. Reservations are not strictly required but are strongly suggested. Dress is golf course or business casual. But again, this is Vegas: don't be surprised by anything you see. Allow at least an hour to an hour-and-a-half for your dining experience. Call (855) 442-3271 or visit the website at https://www.caesars.com/cromwell/restaurants/giada .

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Want To Make The Kitchen Less Stressful? Follow Anthony Bourdain's “Religion”


A Place For Everything.......

I hear it all the time: “Why don't you open a restaurant?” My answer is usually along the lines of  “been there, done that” and besides, I like to cook. Nothing will spoil a love of cooking faster than running a restaurant. I'll bet I didn't want to go near a stove for six months after the last place I got out of. No, I'm perfectly happy with the occasional work I get as a personal chef and doing some small time catering here and there. But even at that I hear, “I just don't know how you do it. I could never deal with all that pressure.” Or, “Cooking is so stressful!” And for those who feel that way, I suppose it is. But the reason they feel cooking is such a stressful, pressure-ridden chore is because they are such a hopelessly disorganized mess. I've seen some of these people in action in the kitchen and it stresses me out just to watch them. But it doesn't have to be that way. The secret to calm, confident, efficient, and fun cooking is organization. The pros call it “mise en place.”


Mise en place (me-zahn-plahs) is one of those fancy French terms you learn in culinary school. The term literally translates to “setting in place” or “putting in place,” and the concept itself is ridiculously simple: everything has a place and you just need to get organized before you start. Mise en place is a method or a state of mind that, when properly and consistently applied in any kitchen, results in a smooth-flowing, time saving cooking process, thus enabling even a beginning home cook to efficiently produce delicious, quality meals. No pressure, no stress. The late chef Anthony Bourdain often referred to mise en place as his "religion."

Let's prepare some spaghetti sauce, okay? And we're gonna do it right; we're not gonna open a jar, were gonna make the sauce from scratch. “Oh, no!,” I hear you wail. “That's such a mess!” Nah-h-h. Not if you do it right.

First and most importantly, you need to read your recipe. All of it. All the way through. Ingredients and procedure. If you don't, you're setting yourself up for potential problems and stress.

Here's a sauce recipe of Rocco DiSpirito's that I particularly like:

3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 yellow onion, peeled and chopped fine
3 tbsp olive oil
2 (28-ounce) cans tomato puree
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
1 cup chicken stock
Red pepper flakes to taste
Salt to taste

In a large saucepan, cook the garlic and onion in the olive oil over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes or until the garlic is tender and the onions are translucent, not brown. Add the red pepper flakes to taste.

Add all the tomato products. Pour the chicken stock into one of the 28-oz cans. Fill it the rest of the way with water and add that and the sugar to the pot. Stir and bring to a simmer. Taste and season with salt and cover. Simmer the sauce for about 1 hour. The sauce should be fairly thin, but not watery and very smooth. Uncover and simmer for 3 minutes if it is too thin for your taste; add a little water if it seems thick.

Okay, did you read all that? If you did, you found out you're going to need ten ingredients, five of which are canned, jarred, or bottled and two of which will require cutting and/or chopping. So you'll need a can opener, a knife, and a cutting surface, right? A couple of things need to be measured, so that means measuring cups and spoons. You need a saucepan with a cover and a couple of spoons, one to stir with and one to use for tasting. And you need to allow about an hour for cooking. And don't forget to include some additional time up front for all the prep work.

Now, I know a lot of folks who would look at that recipe and proceed like this: they would start by going to the shelf or cupboard for a saucepan. Then they walk over to the stove and place it on a burner. Then they go over to the pantry and find some olive oil and carry it back to the stove. Next, they hunt for some measuring spoons and then head back to the stove to measure in the oil. Now it's back to the pantry again to get some garlic and then a search for a knife or a garlic press. The knife is easy: that's in the drawer with the silverware. But where in the world is that garlic press? Oh, yeah. It's under the cabinet with the aluminum foil and the cereal. Once the garlic is crushed, it's back to the pantry for an onion. Then they locate a cutting board somewhere and go back to the counter where they left the knife. After they chop the onion, they go back to the stove and turn on the burner. Now they add in the garlic and onion and then they look for a wooden spoon with which to stir it. Then it's back to the pantry for the tomato products, moving quickly so the garlic and onions don't burn. Find the can opener in the same cabinet where the garlic press was and open all the cans of tomato product. Ooops! Forgot the red pepper flakes! Back to the pantry. Guess what? No red pepper flakes. Too late now. We'll just have to leave them out. So, now the tomato products are in. Back to the pantry for the chicken stock. Locate the can opener again and open the can. Find a measuring cup – it's in the drawer with the dish towels – and measure out the stock. Over to the sink to get some water then back to the pantry for the sugar. Find the measuring spoons again and measure out the sugar, then go back over to the sink and get the can with the stock and the water. Then over to the stove to dump it all in the pan and stir it up. Go get the salt shaker off the dining room table and then go back to the stove to add the salt to the sauce. Go over to the silverware drawer and get a spoon, then step back over to the stove to taste the sauce. Now, just figure out which lid fits the pan, cover it and the hard part is done! Whew!

That was way harder than it needed to be. And if that's anywhere near your method, no wonder you hate to cook.

Have you ever watched a cooking show on TV and noticed that the chef had all the pots, pans and tools right at hand and all the ingredients neatly laid out in little bowls so they could just dump the prepared contents of the bowls into the waiting pans and create perfect dishes? That's the way the big time TV chefs do it, baby. You don't see them running back to the fridge for a carrot, now do you? Nope. A whole bunch of people in the prep kitchen make sure that everything is laid out and ready before the host chef ever smiles at the camera. That's why it looks so easy on TV. Emeril might be the one to “bam!” his way through the recipe, but there's a lot of folks working off camera to make sure that his mise en place is set up the way he needs it. Well, in your kitchen, you're the prep cook.

Here's the way it should go: after you've read the recipe, clear the decks. Prepare your work area. Get rid of junk and clutter that will only get in your way as you try to work. Clean off counters and work spaces and clean up any dirty dishes you've got lying around. If you start work in a dirty, cluttered, disorganized kitchen, you're just ratcheting up the stress level.

Now set about gathering your ingredients and your equipment. Most kitchen disasters happen when you get halfway through preparing a dish only to discover that you don't have a necessary ingredient. It's those "Darn! I thought I had some of that" surprises that can ruin a cooking experience. To say nothing of a dish.

After you've got your ingredient ducks in a row, work on your equipment. Any necessary pots or pans as well as measuring cups, spoons, mixing bowls, blenders, choppers, spatulas, etc. Get them all together in one place so you're not running all over the kitchen after them.

Open all the cans, measure out all the liquid and dry ingredients and place them in handy prep bowls or containers. You know what works well for me? I love the little plastic cups from individual serving fruits or applesauce. You know, the kind you pack in lunches. I've got stacks of 'em and they make great prep cups. Chop up the vegetables and put them in prep bowls or containers. This is called making things "cooking ready." If you have ingredients that are going to be cooked at the same time, such as in a mirepoix or soffrito, it's okay to combine them at this stage. Now, you just assemble all the prepared ingredients into the prepared cookware and you're done with the hard part, except it wasn't nearly as hard because you were organized from the start.

Running all over the kitchen looking for the salt or a baking pan or a wooden spoon after you've started your recipe wastes time and energy. Preparing ahead of time allows you to cook without having to stop and assemble items, important in recipes with time constraints. Mise en place also allows you to cook in an orderly fashion. Let's face it, trying to chop the carrots while the onions are sauteing is a good way to foul up both. Poor preparation usually leads to poor outcomes. And mise en place is particularly beneficial if you are preparing more than one recipe or one with multiple steps. For instance, if my wife is baking an Italian cream cake, I'll set up her “mise” for her so that all the ingredients for the cake are laid out in one area, the stuff for the chocolate ganache is set up in another area, and the ingredients for the frosting are prepped and waiting in another spot. Having everything laid out in advance enables her to move efficiently from one preparation step to the next, just like those TV chefs!

Another huge and often overlooked aspect of mise en place involves clean up. Since mise en place starts and ends with everything in its place, an essential part of the process is cleaning up as you go. Don't let dishes stack up and accumulate as you're cooking. Clean them up and put them away as you use them. Mess equals stress. Clean as you go. That way, when you're finished cooking, instead of a daunting pile of dirty dishes and cookware, you have a complete meal, a clean kitchen and a low stress level. Win, win! And your kitchen is ready for the next round.

Honestly, I cannot fathom how some people function in kitchens that are disorganized to begin with with and wind up looking like war zones by the time they finish cooking a meal. I am acquainted with several people who just throw things into drawers and cabinets without regard to what goes with what. Mixing bowls live with canned goods, plastic wrap resides with frying pans, silverware inhabits two or three separate drawers. Yeesh! People, the department stores are full of nifty organizers to help you put your kitchen together more efficiently. If I had to go on safari every time I needed a measuring spoon, I'd probably get sick of cooking, too.

And then there are the people who employ every dish in the kitchen in the preparation of a meal and just stack all the used cookware in tremendous piles. I kid you not, I once knew a woman who stacked her dirty dishes on the floor when she ran out of sink and counter space. I don't have to tell you how nasty that is, do I? And then these people survey the nightmare they've created in the simple preparation of a pot of spaghetti and wail about what a chore cooking is! Please!

My drawers, cabinets, and countertops are neat and organized and I know where everything is. I don't have baked on messes on my cooktop because if something spills or boils over while I'm cooking, I clean it up on the spot. I keep a sink full of hot, soapy water on hand as I'm preparing dishes and as I use a pan or a bowl or a utensil, I wash it and put it away. The stand mixer and the food processor get cleaned and put back in their corners as soon as I'm through with them. When I finish preparing a four-course meal, my sink, countertops, and stovetop don't look much different than when I started. A place for everything and everything in its place.

Admittedly, on the surface mise en place sounds like a lot of extra time, extra work, and extra dishes. But it's really not and it's also the best route to less stressful cooking. Proper preparation will make any cooking experience a more efficient, productive, and enjoyable one. And the confidence you gain from being more efficient and productive may lead you to try more ambitious and more flavorful recipes, making you an all around better cook. And one who's considerably less stressed.

Mise en place – “set in place.” If, like Anthony Bourdain, you make it your “religion” in the kitchen, cooking will never again seem like such a stressful chore.

Buon appetito!