Food Column: Chef and TV food star Batali really is Super Mario


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If Mario Batali works as fast as he talks, it's no wonder the guy gets so much stuff done.

He's a chef, restaurant owner, TV star and cookbook author. He peddles his own lines of pots and pans, pasta sauces, brick ovens, Crocs for kitchen wear, watches and iPod apps. He's opening three new restaurants in 2012 as well as developing new Internet-based digital programming on food, wine and art.

And he tells me the entire story in about 10 minutes at a mile-a-minute pace.

Mr. Batali will do a cooking demo and book signing at noon Saturday at Giant Eagle Market District, Pine. Tickets already are sold out; more information is available at marketdistrict.com.

Mr. Batali studied Spanish theater at Rutgers University and enjoyed cooking throughout college, but he didn't decide to pursue it professionally until afterward.

Now he has restaurants worldwide: in urban and suburban New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Singapore. Some are partnerships with Lidia Bastianich, owner of Lidia's Pittsburgh in the Strip District, and her son, Joe. One of the Batali-Bastianich partnerships is Eataly, billed as "the largest artisanal food and wine marketplace in the world," offering shopping, dining and cooking classes.

His partnership with the Bastianiches started 16 years ago, when Ms. Bastianich invited him to work alongside her to prepare a James Beard Awards dinner for food journalists.

"Lidia was a big shot in the New York restaurant scene long before I had even heard about the New York restaurant scene," Mr. Batali said, noting the chefs she inspired to join her for that event were "young, untested talent." But it wasn't long before he joined her as a New York big shot; he went on two years later to win the 1998 James Beard award for "Best New Restaurant" for his first restaurant, Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca in Greenwich Village.

Mr. Batali's three new restaurants this year all are opening in Hong Kong, and he has an eye toward expanding into mainland China, too.

"I'm in love with the Asian world, the way they think about food," he enthused. "Their ingredients aren't processed, and they understand the time and the cost it takes to prepare a good meal."

Despite the fact that he's now at the helm of a worldwide empire, Mr. Batali says he remains "very involved" in every aspect of his business.

"We don't change any items on the menu in any of my restaurants without my involvement and my blessing," he said, noting that thanks to the wonders of the Internet, he communicates with the chefs of each restaurant nearly every day.

He also gets heavily involved in product research and creation before he'll put his name on merchandise.

For the Mario Batali pasta sauces, "we spent a year and a half tasting and going back and forth" before settling on varieties and beginning production.

"I'm not just a brand dude who puts my name out there on anything and everything."

For his Market District appearance, he plans to demonstrate two dishes in a half hour, although he figures it'll probably take more like 45 minutes.

"I could do it in less time, but I end up talking too much."


More celebrity chefs

Here are some additional celebrity chefs who will be appearing at Giant Eagle Market District's store in Pine:

Devin Alexander, host of FitTV's "Healthy Decadence," noon May 19.

Mario Porecca, author of "The Good, the Bad, the Cookbook," 1 p.m. May 20.

Alex Guarnaschelli, host of Food Network's "Alex's Day Off" and "The Cooking Loft," noon May 26.

All appearances are free, but register in advance at marketdistrict.com.

Celebrate Mom

Free brunch: The Elbow Room, Shadyside, offers free brunch for moms who dine with their children Mother's Day, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 412-441-5222 or elbowroompittsburgh.com.

May Market at Phipps: Horticulturists, garden clubs, nurseries, farms and other vendors will transform the lawn of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens into a marketplace from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Peruse organic herbs and vegetable seedlings, perennials, shrubs, botanical art and other products, plus try some hand-dipped fondant strawberries. May Market customers can also see the Summer Flower Show for half-price. May Market admission is free. phipps.conservatory.org.

Charity news

"Let Them Eat Cake!" the popular benefit for The Midwife Center, Strip District, is a competition between amateur and professional cake bakers, with gourmet appetizers, wine and beer bar, Champagne tasting and live music. The event at 7:30 p.m. May 19 at Pittsburgh Opera, Strip District, costs $45 in advance (midwifecenter.org) or $60 at the door, or $75 for a VIP pre-reception. See next Thursday's Food Column for more information and a baker profile.

The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank recently received a $5,000 grant from Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze and related restaurants) to support the food bank's "Produce to People" program aimed at increasing consumption of fresh fruits and veggies. Across Pennsylvania, the Darden program raised $89,000 for 43 nonprofit organizations.


Drinks

Second Whiskey Rebellion, a chance to taste and tour Wigle Whiskey with the Slow Food Pittsburgh group, is set for 6:30 to 9 p.m. next Thursday, May 17, at the new Strip District distillery. Enjoy cured meats, cheese, spring veggie tart, roasted seasonal vegetables, Wigle Whiskey truffles and some whiskey samples, plus watch whiskey being made. $45; reserve ahead by emailing vredpath@aol.com.

Wine Tasting Dinner, 7 p.m. May 19 at Gaynor's School of Cooking, South Side, will feature wines paired with tomato bruschetta, smoked salmon mousse lollipops, Greek roasted lamb, asparagus risotto, spring spinach salad and raspberry bavois. $99. 412-325-2703 or gaynorsschoolofcooking.com.

Contests

Virtual cookie table: The Senator John Heinz History Center and GoodTaste! Pittsburgh invite local bakers to submit their best cookie recipes, photos and stories behind their recipes to recipes@heinzhistorycenter.org through May 25.

The Center will upload all entries to its Facebook page June 1 when fans will be able to vote for their favorites. Top five finalists will have their recipes baked by Priory Fine Pastries, North Side, and then judged by an expert panel at the History Center's Hometown-Homegrown event, a showcase of local foods, on June 23. The top recipe will be featured in a special episode of Chris Fennimore's "QED Cooks" on WQED. Information: heinzhistorycenter.org.

Chili cook-off: Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is seeking amateur and restaurant cooks to compete in the "People's Choice Community Cook-Off" June 9 at the Five-Alarm Mountain Madness Chili Cook-Off. There's no entry fee, but cooks are asked to bring three gallons of chili for tasting and public judging. Winner gets a $200 Nemacolin Woodlands gift card. For information or to register, call Ashli Mazer at 724-329-6387.

Rome trip: Dietz & Watson is offering one winner a six-day trip for two to Rome. "Like" Dietz & Watson on Facebook and click "Flavors of Italy" tab to enter the contest. One entry per person, per day, is permitted through May 30.


Sauteed Spinach with Cremini and Peppers
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound cremini mushrooms, brushed clean and halved
  • Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 yellow bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut into thin julienne
  • 12 cups young spinach leaves, trimmed
  • Salt
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

In a 14-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, cut side down, and sprinkle in the lemon zest. Cook, without shaking the pan or stirring, until the mushrooms are golden brown, about 8 minutes (have patience and confidence here!).

Add the onions and the peppers, and stir thoroughly. Saute until the onions and peppers are soft and translucent, 6 to 7 minutes.

Raise the heat to high and allow the mushroom mixture to sizzle. Add the spinach and cook quickly, stirring, until wilted, about 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice, season with salt to taste and the pepper, and serve immediately.

Serves 8 to 10 as a side dish.

-- "Molto Batali" by Mario Batali (Ecco, 2011)

foodcolumn

Rebecca Sodergren: pgfoodevents@hotmail.com. First Published May 10, 2012 4:00 AM


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