Reality TV Bites

A new TV show goes live at The Restaurant

The link between New York and Miami is like that of a torso and an amputated leg: The latter might be expendable, but the physical memory lingers.

Which city is the sacrificial limb depends on perspective. Usually I consider New York the phantom itch. No matter how hard I try to take refuge in Miami, I can't completely escape the Brooklyn accents, the Queens coarseness, the Manhattanite superiority. A recent episode in the Big Apple, though, has convinced me that Miami will always be as much of an omnipresence in New York as N.Y.C. is a permanent shadow for the transplants who now live in the Magic City. While shopping in Tribeca, chatting about how glad I was to be away from my overproducing mango trees, I stepped on -- of all things -- the skin of a mango.

A minor incidence, yes. But keep in mind that I have fourteen trees (of which, fortunately, only eleven are of fruit-bearing age). As a rough underestimate, I've been collecting an average 300 perfectly ripe mangoes a day and Hefty-bagging another 150 rotten ones for the understandably beleaguered garbage men. We can't walk outside without the stench of curing mangoes hitting us roundly around the sinuses. We can't go anywhere without taking cases of the richly perfumed globes with us, in the hopes that some other fanatics will take the endless fruit off our hands.

And I can't help but be relieved to leave my husband in charge of the time-consuming collection and escape for a few days into the New York dining scene -- much easier work, if you can get it, than hauling basket after wicker laundry basket of fruit that has, even in these early days, outstripped local market (read: my neighborhood) demand.

Fruit wasn't the only familiarity I encountered on the trip. Ostensibly I'd flown up to dine at Rocco's, the Rocco DiSpirito restaurant that is being filmed by NBC for a reality TV series called The Restaurant, produced by CBS's Survivor exec Mark Burnett, and set to premiere July 20. I was delighted that a publicist-friend had invited me to be an "extra" in the form of dinner guest. It seemed like kismet, especially when I looked up toward the end of the meal on the first night that I dined to find Janet Van Aken, with chef-hubby Norman behind her, staring at me. "What the hell are you doing here?" she asked with an amazed smile.

"The same thing you are," I replied. "Checking the place out." Even the company we were keeping was similar; in retrospect we all kind of fall on the dissolute end of the scale of name-dropping, gastronomic pretension. I was dining with, among others, David Rosengarten, cookbook author and Food TV personality, who was drinking Campari and waxing poetic about a brand of canned tuna he had just sampled that he labeled the "foie gras" of albacore. Meanwhile the Van Aken party, which included celebrity chefs Larry Forgione of An American Place and Dean Fearing from the Mansion on Turtle Creek, was tossing down Scotch and dickering over who serves the best burger in the city.

The coincidences began to make a little more sense when Jeffrey Chodorow, who was roaming the Italian-American restaurant, doing the meet-and-greet with his elegant, Harry Winston bracelet-sporting wife, sat down for a few minutes. Chodorow heads up China Grill Management (assorted locations of China Grill, Tuscan Steak, Blue Door, Red Square, and Rock Lobster in Miami, New York, and Las Vegas), the company that is bankrolling The Restaurantproject. It is Chodorow's newest partnership with DiSpirito, the classically designed culinary god (if you like that tossed-over-the-forehead, curly-locks, my-name-should-be-David look -- and who doesn't) who operates Union Pacific and consults for the remake of Tuscan Steak, now called Tuscan, in New York.

Both men were clearly having a very good, if a bit of a dazed, time, despite the constant camera presence, the TV lighting that turns everyone not wearing heavy foundation into Miami-bound Midwesterners, and the dark circles that result from the stress of designing and building Rocco's from the ground up in only five weeks. When I complimented the belt buckles worn by the soccer-jerseyed staff, which are logoed with Italian-Americanisms such as "red sauce" and "stallion," Chodorow immediately procured one for me. And Rocco, bless his cute little overworked heart, said nearly every time he was introduced to me at the afterparty (numbering at least thrice), "Very nice to meet you. The buffet is now open."

In the restaurant world -- indeed, in any world that includes contractors and construction and hand-laid mosaic floors with tiles imported from Italy, natch -- a five-week completion is an unheard-of accomplishment. In addition, despite the slew of reality TV shows that now bombard us, none has come close to documenting the daily dramas experienced by both a restaurant staff and its customers. (And no, the short-lived sitcom starring Emeril Lagasse absolutely does not count.) As a result the sheer innovation of the project, complemented by the interest of the network, which is considering extending the run of the season, has led Chodorow to speculate about where to scout for the sequel. "Miami," he confides, "though this time we would do it at a normal pace."

But the person most enjoying herself was DiSpirito's mother, a native of Campagna, Italy, who is actually Rocco's chef de cuisine. Though her first name is Nicolina, everyone calls her Mama, and it is her recipes that inspired the signature dishes on the menu: "Mama's meatballs," "Mama's frittata," "Mama's roasted potatoes," et al., along with country regional dishes such as rabbit cacciatore or "red shrimp," a plateful of authentic scampi (members of the lobster family that we refer to in this country, broadly, as prawns).

Nicolina isn't the only one to have namesake items. Uncle Guiseppe "Joe" stuffs the sausage for stewing it with peppers and sautéing it with perfectly bitter broccoli rabe. He also brews the lightly fruity house wine, in typical Italian-American, Prohibition-influenced basement style, and Rocco's aunts roll the homemade bucatini, pinch the gnocchi, twist the cavatelli, and fingerprint the orecchiette. Still, next to Rocco, or even almost exceeding him, Mama is the restaurant's personality, the one who goes around kissing cheeks and stroking hair. I haven't felt so warmly embraced -- and then immediately forgotten -- since either of my grandmas was alive. And damn if I didn't wish Rocco was the one with such familiar hands.

How the story of Rocco's will play itself out in one-hour episodes on television I have no idea. How Rocco's the restaurant will do once the hype dies down and the cameras stop rolling I also have very little clue, though I suspect once the staff has a chance to practice out of the public eye it'll be a pretty good place to grab some fried zucchini flowers filled with melted cheese and some steak alla pizzaiola. All I know is, I've got a belt that says "stallion," and I'm going to wear it, in New York or Miami, as well as I do mango pulp on the heel of a surgically severed foot.

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