Like so many Italian-Americans, Joey Fatone didn't just grow up eating tomato sauce made from a recipe handed down over the generations -- he helped his parents make it. His entertainer father, who performed with the doo-wop group The Orions, was something of a whiz in their Brooklyn kitchen, and nothing made Joe Sr. happier than seeing his young son wrist-deep in a bowl of ground meat, breadcrumbs and spices.
Small hands, after all, make for the perfect-sized polpetta.
"Growing up in an Italian family, you made the sauce, you made the meatballs and the sausage, and everything else," recalled Mr. Fatone, who used to drive girls crazy as the baritone for the '90s boy band 'N Sync. He was in Pittsburgh earlier this month for a marquee role with Pittsburgh CLO's production of "42nd Street."
If only he'd paid better attention during Dad's impromptu cooking lessons.
Wanting to impress his wife and daughter a few years ago with a batch of his family's homemade sauce, Mr. Fatone realized he had no clue where to start. With tomatoes, of course, but what of the spices? How much olive oil? Crushed or chopped garlic . . . or was it no garlic at all?
"I was like, 'Crap, I don't remember how to make it,' " he admitted with a chuckle. His famous dimples are still there. "So I called him up and was like, 'Dad, how to you make this? How to you do that?' "
Those baby steps into the world of home cooking led to an interest in cookbooks, which in turn encouraged the singer-turned-actor-turned-television host to start experimenting with ingredients and creating his own dishes. He wasn't a full-fledged foodie per se -- he travels too much to cook each and every night -- but word got around town that he knew his way around the kitchen.
You know where this is headed, right?
In 2011, after a successful turn on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" (he came in second after skater Apolo Anton Ohno), a producer with the Live Well Network approached Mr. Fatone about the possibility of hosting a cooking show. In less time than it takes to boil a pot of New Orleans crawfish -- one of his first episodes on the show -- "My Family Recipe Rocks" was born.
To fans who can't get Mr. Fatone's seminal gig as a teen pop star out of their heads (and yes, some of us still scream when we realize it's him! it's really him!, a cooking show might seem out there. He's quick to point out he's not the one doing the slicing and dicing.
Rather, the goateed showman provides color commentary (along with eye candy) as everyday cooks demonstrate the dishes that drive their friends and family crazy. "Then we put the recipes on the website, so everyone can try them out."
The concept proved such a hit, he's about to begin filming his second season. He'll start in St. Louis, where a friend who works for Anheuser-Busch will teach him how to cook with beer.
Food Network also has come calling, recruiting the actor last year for "Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off," a reality series in which he came in third after rapper Coolio and actor Lou Diamond Phillips. He's also done an episode of "Chopped" and cooked arancini (Italian rice balls), quite charmingly, with his mother, Phyllis, on Rachael Ray's daytime TV show.
That one of my own sons would be so cute!
Father's Day is rapidly approaching, so we thought it would be fun to invite the 36-year-old father of two into the PG Test Kitchen to try his hand at an iconic Pittsburgh dish: City Chicken, which isn't really chicken at all but pork (and sometimes veal) that's rolled in breadcrumbs, skewered on a stick, and baked with broth in the oven.
Only we were going to do it two ways.
Wanting to give Mr. Fatone a taste of "old" Pittsburgh, I had a batch of "regular" city chicken warming in the oven when he arrived at the house last Thursday, June 6. (You can find the recipe from Tom Friday's Market, which was included in a 2011 story by Bob Batz Jr., at post-gazette.com/food.) Then onto something new.
In honor of Sunday's holiday, which in many households is celebrated with a backyard cookout, I'd also marinated a couple fat sticks of pork in a spicy jerk sauce. The plan was to grill it, then have Mr. Fatone do a taste-test between the two dishes and declare a winner.
How's that for a rockin' good time?
An enthusiastic griller -- he loves doing the chicken, the steak, paella, "you name it" -- Mr. Fatone was totally game, despite the fact it was raining. And that my teenaged daughters were waiting, iPhone cameras poised, giggly and breathless on the back porch. Knowing I couldn't refuse a fellow fan, they'd talked me into writing a note for an early dismissal from school. Nice guy that he is, he posed for pictures. (And yes, that includes with me.) He even sang us a little "bye, bye, bye" when we were done.
My knees are still shaking.
I know what some of you are thinking: That's not the way to make city chicken! Which may explain why to come up with a recipe to really wow Mr. Fatone, I had to search for fun things to do with pork.
While we cooked, he talked about his time in Pittsburgh. What we learned was this:
• This isn't his first time in Pittsburgh. He was first here in July 2000, when 'N Sync played the final concert at Three Rivers Stadium. And in 2010, he was part of the cast for CLO's production of "The Producers." "But I didn't get a chance to see a lot of stuff," he said.
He sure got around this time. Not only did he get to throw out the first pitch at a Pirates game, but he also made it to Kennywood, where he rode "everything" (setting the Twitterverse on fire), and to Consol Energy for a Penguins game. "So I'm having a great time."
• Pittsburghers are a hospitable bunch ("everyone is really, really cool") and the city itself, he said, is one of the cleanest he's been to in a long time.
• People still recognize him. A lot. But he never knows for sure how -- it depends on when they grew up, what they watched and where he was in his career when they became fans. Women in their mid-20s to early-30s know him from 'N Sync. Older women remember him from "Dancing with the Stars" or his part in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." And then there are the younger kids just graduating from high school. They associate Joey Fatone with "Hannah Montana," in which he played a washed-up baseball player named Joey Vitolo.
• He was too busy with rehearsals to eat out much this recent stay, but he did make it to SoHo on the North Shore and a few places on Market Square, which is close to the Benedum Center. He'd sampled a Primanti's sandwich last time he was in town.
• If he had to choose between singing, dancing or acting, what would it be? "It tough, because I love it all," he said. "Variety is the great spice of life. I'm not married to one thing."
• Speaking of marriage, he tied the knot with his high school sweetheart, Kelly, in 2004 and they have two daughters, 12-year-old Briahna and Kloey who is 3. "I know ... a huge gap," he said. He'd not sure where he'll be on Father's Day -- he's hoping his hometown of Orlando -- but after so much travel, it will be cool just to spend time with the girls.
• If he were to shoot an episode of his show at his own house, he'd probably make his father's sauce and meatballs because "my kids love it." 'Nuf said.
• So if he had to choose, would it be traditional City Chicken or Jerk City Chicken?
"They're both really good."
Jerk City Chicken
City chicken traditionally is baked, but in honor of Father's Day, we decided to marinate it in a spicy jerk sauce and then grill it. It was nothing short of fabulous.
I served the skewers with cilantro-lime rice, and a big bowl of Honey Lime Sauce and shared it with everyone "on set."
For the paste
1 habanero or Scotch bonnet chile, seeded
1 cup lightly packed fresh cilantro
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 scallions, white and green parts, lightly chopped
6 medium cloves garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 pounds city chicken (pork cut into 1-inch cubes, and threaded on a skewer)
Bamboo skewers, soaked in water for at least 30 minutes prior to use
For Honey Lime Sauce
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lime zest
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons honey
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place all of the ingredients for the paste in the jar of a blender and blend until smooth. Place pork chunks in large recloseable bag and pour in the paste, seal and toss to evenly distribute; open and reseal the bag, removing as much air as possible. Let marinate in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours.
In a small bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the sauce. Set aside.
Light one chimney full of charcoal. While the charcoal is lighting, thread the pork chunks onto the skewers.
When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over the charcoal grate. (I skipped this step because I used a gas grill.)
Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place the skewers on the grill and cook until the meat is cooked through (an internal temperature of 145 degrees), about 6 to 8 minutes, turning 3 or 4 times during grilling. Serve immediately with the honey-lime sauce.
-- Adapted from "Weber's Way to Grill" by Jamie Purviance (Oxmoor, $24.95)
Ken's Chocolate Turtle Cheesecake
What father doesn't like cheesecake?
This recipe comes from an episode of "My Family Recipe Rocks" that Joey Fatone did with Real Men Cook, a Dallas-based nonprofit organization that empowers men to cook for their communities. It's the perfect ending to a special Father's Day meal, though in my opinion, Dad shouldn't have to do the cooking!
I like a thick crust, so I doubled the ingredients for the graham cracker crust. You might want to, also.
This is one dessert where you shouldn't count calories. I did the math, and immediately regretted it.
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
2 tablespoons sugar for crust
5 tablespoons butter, melted
24 caramels, unwrapped
1/4 cup whole milk
1 cup, pecans coarsely chopped and toasted
2 pounds cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 large eggs
2/3 cup sour cream
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips, melted
Pecan halves for garnish, toasted
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Mix together the ingredients for the crust -- graham cracker crumbs, 2 tablespoons sugar and melted butter -- and press into a 9-inch springform pan going two inches up the side.
Microwave caramels and milk in a heatproof bowl on high until caramels are completely melted, stirring a few times. Stir the chopped pecans into the caramel mixture.
Pour half onto the crust. Set aside the remaining half. Refrigerate the crust for at least 10 minutes.
In a large bowl beat cream cheese with the 11/3 cup of sugar, pinch of salt and vanilla with a mixer until well blended. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing on low speed after each addition just until blended. Add sour cream and whipping cream and mix on low speed to combine. Remove the crust from the refrigerator and pour the cream cheese mixture over the caramel and crust.
Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes, until the center is almost set. (Cheesecake will be very tall but will deflate a bit as it cools.) Allow to cool on a wire reack, then refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
Run a knife around the rim of the pan to loosen before removing from the pan. Place on a serving plate.
Microwave reserved caramel mixture and pour over cheesecake. Drizzle melted chocolate over the caramel mixture. Garnish with the toasted pecan halves.
If this cheesecake isn't rich enough, add whipped cream!
Serves 12 to 16.
-- Kendrick Nealy, Real Men Cook of Dallas (realmencook.com/Dallas.html)
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org,412-263-1419or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published June 13, 2013 4:00 AM