Chef Tell: The Big Italian Challenge at the Big Italian Restaurant

Last night was a big night. A big family night. A big Italian family night. As much as I love me some Tre and Tiffany, I was rooting for Fabio big time. If I had the money, I'd want Fabio to record an audio book for me of his own stories.

But before we got any sign of garlic or pasta, there was the Quickfire Challenge. The uber-fashionable, Bravo show-cross-reference Quickfire with designer Isaac Mizrahi and a Padma Lakshmi jewelry plug for good measure. The test? Well, it wasn't to make a dish that tasted good, but one that looked good. One that would make the supportive mentor on his show squeal with glee on this show.

Except, Isaac didn't really squeal with glee. He got a little snippy, a little harsh. And it was good. I feared he'd be super sticky-sweet, as he is sometimes with the mentoring sesh on The Fashion Show. But, IM was full-on judge-y judge.

He didn't care for Angelo citing his fave designer as being Roberto Cavalli. In fact, he found Angelo's crocodile-inspired piece to be a bit of a crock. He did, however take to Tiffany's piece as well as TopThree-ers Carla, Fabio and Blaise, with Blaise taking the win. Black ice cream and greenery made him want to grab a spoon. Frankly, I would have gone with Tiffany's or Carla's plates of simply beautiful handiwork, but that liquid nitrogen did something to the man.

To intro the Eliminaton Challenge, three suited men walked in looking very Italian, very intimidating and very...awesome. They were Frank Pellegrino, Frankie Junior and Dino the Chef from Rao's Restaurant, New York. As in, the Italian restaurant that's been around 114 years and has the standing reservations for their regular customers. As in, one of the most exclusive restaurants in America. (Frank Sr. was also in GoodFellas.)

They, and Padma, explained that teams of three each would provide a course (antipasti, or starter; primi, or pasta; secondi, or entree/meat) after a few minutes of talking with one of the Rao's men for inspiration. This part also came with several talking heads featuring the chefs of Italian descent getting all revved up to win. Oh, and Tre claiming with his hearty laugh for punctuation, that "People do call me "the black Italian."

For reference:
Antipasti: Carla, Antonia, Tiffany
Primi: Tre, Mike Isabella, Dale
Secondi: Fabio, Blaise, Angelo

Everyone got his or her plan down and prepped and freaked and prepped some more and talked about how proud they were to be Italian, or how they loved to make Italian food, or how they were really intimidated by the men in the suits. They headed to Rao's to cook.

Upon entering, Antonia wisely exclaimed that it reminded her of "an old-school Italian restaurant." Can't get anything past that one. She's sharp.

Guests included more staff (Nicky Vest the bartender being my favorite) and the other co-owner, Ron Straci. The guest judge was actress Lorraine Bracco (GoodFellas, Sopranos) and man, she and Anthony Bourdain were en pointe with the commentary.
Here's a sampling:
On Dale's pasta (which he likes to make for his girlfriend): "He's not getting laid tonight!" - LB
On Mike's rigatoni: "This looks like something you'd find on the steam table at your worst enemy's wedding." - AB
On Fabio's polenta: "Fabio's polenta wiped away the stain of the previous course. I feel better about the world." - AB
Bourdain really couldn't get away from the mafia schtick, though, and so there were references to hiding bodies, murder and some other stuff I'm sure the guys found funny...but not...too...funny, OK now?

Tiffany broke down in tears when she (polenta terrine with sausage), Antonia (steamed mussels and fennel), Carla (minestrone and foccacia) and Fabio (polla alla cacciatora and polenta al pecorino) were brought in to Judges' Table and named the top dishes of the night. After last week, she said, she had some ups and downs. And this week might count as another down in spite of her high praise since her Dallas pal Tre was up for the chop.

Tre (a stiff risotto), Mike Isabella (the aforementioned rigatoni) and Dale (the unsexy pasta) were in the bottom. It was a toss-up in terms of predicting: Would Mike go for knowing better, or stay because he knew what he did wrong? Dale wouldn't go because he just didn't layer things correctly. But Tre, well, Tre made a risotto that didn't spread and was overpowered by garnish and you just don't do that.

And so Antonia won. Still say it should have been Fabio. And Tre was sent packing knives. But he did it with class. He said he knew even if he lost this time, he'd gain new knowledge and a lot of new friends. And he said, "I'm going home a better chef." To T-Derr, he said, "See you in Dallas" and bear-hugged her (so jealous). He left to the applause of the cheftestants.

I'm sad to see him off, but I get the decision. And he repped Dallas very, very well. Now it's up to Tiffany...and Tre is rooting her on, as he states in the exit interview below.