It is so tempting to imagine a wrestling match. In one corner, from the rolling farm country of Napa Valley, Tra Vigne's Michael Chiarello. In the other, from the cramped streets of Manhattan, Mario Batali, an owner of Babbo, Pó, Lupa and Esca. The first is trim, impeccably dressed and has a cooking show on PBS. The other wears his flaming hair long, walks around in shorts and Converse sneakers no matter where he's going and opts for the more raucous venue of the TV Food Network. If the recent rise of extreme-cooking competitions has made the food world look more and more like professional wrestling, then the meeting of Chiarello and Batali to exchange opinions about antipasti has all the makings of a steel-cage match.
But, alas, it turns out that the two have more in common than not. They share ancestral roots in Italy, upbringings on the West Coast and, when it comes to food, a deadly serious commitment to bringing their own ideas to Italian traditions. When challenged to define what antipasto is all about, both men come up with varying definitions. To their credit, all their pronouncements seem equally true.
Antipasti, the chefs agree, are an introduction to the meal. "In my family's house, growing up," Chiarello says, "somebody would drop by and, boom, you go pull down the prosciutto. You get the vegetables. You get the anchovies and lay them all out." Thus, the presence of preserved ingredients in the chefs' antipasti--things you keep on hand in case anybody happens along. Each man created his own take on giardiniera, the assorted pickled vegetables that most Americans know only from those dusty jars that sit, untouched for generations, on the top shelves of Italian grocery stores. Chiarello's is a plate of vegetables in a Calabrian tomato-based sauce; Batali's accompanies marinated fresh anchovies. "In the fall, when your garden is giving more than you can eat, that's when you make giardiniera," Batali explains. The custom of putting out foods kept in cans or jars, Chiarello says, "is a simple thing, but it's the first step toward expressing your hospitality."