'MasterChef' launch: My dinner with Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot
Bastianich is gracious enough to open the doors to the private Jack Warner dining room at Pizzeria Mozza, a restaurant he opened with Chef Mario Batali. The room is lined by wine bottles, while votives flicker and heavy gothic red seats march along each side of the long table that seats 18.
As soon as I walk in, I'm offered a glass of sparkling rose. It's a good start to the evening.
My main aim (besides stuffing myself with savory Italian food) of the night is to get to know Bastianich and Elliot, who aren't as recognizable on TV as their fellow judge Gordon Ramsay. Is Bastianich as forbidding as he seems? Will he stare cryptically and not say a word? Will Elliot let down his guard and not sit in judgment?
Just before the food is served, Bastianich stands to greet the journalists with an opening statement, which we meet warmly partly because of the wines that have been provided by his wineries.
As we chat, we dig into the selection of antipasti -- marinated baby peppers stuffed with tuna, meatballs al forno (I hog two) and fried squash blossoms filled with ricotta -- all of which could have been enough for dinner alone. This is promptly followed by the affetati misti -- a selection of speck, salumi salame, soppressata and prosciutto de parma with thick-cut, crusty pane bianco.
As we move on to Nancy Silverton's meaty chopped salad, the two reality judges play musical chairs, allowing each of us to get to know them a little better. Bastianich sits down next to me first, and I must admit his calm manner and steady gaze can be a little unsettling. Once we start talking about food, however, I relax. People who really appreciate food won't ever be at a loss for conversation.
It also doesn't hurt that he's constantly sliding slices of pizza onto my plate at any given opportunity. They serve four: 1) Fennel sausage, panna, red onions and scallions, 2) the classic margherita, 3) squash blossom, tomato and burrata and 4) A bianca with fontina, mozzarella, sage and sottocenere (I believe this last one is "al tartufo" because I'm a fool for truffles and this is my favorite slice of the bunch).
We make the switch again, and my new seatmate is Elliot, whose dapper trompe l'oeil tuxedo shirt is a fun complement to his tatted arms. (Incidentally, Elliot's no restauranteur slouch either. President Obama celebrated his birthday at Elliot's eponymous resto in Chicago.) By now, everyone's feeling convivial since we're full of wine, bread, cured meats and cheese. The conversation turns to Elliot's ink, and he reveals that they represent all the places he's visited. For some reason, we also become rather nostalgic, remembering TV theme songs past.
Somewhere along the way, I've revealed that I'm a huge fan of Mozza's butterscotch budino with the delicious Maldon sea salt. By the time dessert rolls out, an entire budino is placed in front of me even though everyone is sharing theirs or their plum sorbetti.
So there you have it. Bastianich and Elliot are my new favorite reality show judges, not only for their passion for good food and shining a light on talented at-home cooks on "MasterChef," but also because they're darn good company.
Despite approaching a food coma, I muster up a smile in appreciation for the night's events with my new food friends.
"MasterChef" airs a two-hour episode on Wednesday, Aug. 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.
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