Mario Batali and Michael Chiarello compete to make the best first courses. They both win.
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."
Antipasti may be simple, but they are certainly not boring. Consider what the two chefs do with cheese. Chiarello's frico takes the best part of a grilled cheese sandwich--the bits of cheese that get brown and crispy--and puts it in the spotlight by topping it with sliced ripe pears; Batali's goat cheese balls get a deceptively fine dusting of intensely concentrated seasonings (sweet paprika, poppy seeds and fennel pollen, which Batali compares to "the breath of fennel"). These first courses seem to be waging a sly conspiracy against the entrée, plotting to be the element of the meal you remember most.
"When you've been working all day, your palate is dead, your body's dead," Chiarello says. "You taste some of these and, right off the bat, they open you up. They get you ready for a meal, and get you ready to accept the good graces of the person sitting across the table from you." Here he performs a bit of antipasto pantomime--leaning across the table, elbows out, and grabbing at an imaginary dish. The gesture is the international symbol for conviviality, for a noisy, laughing group of family or friends gathered around a table, nudging one another out of the way to reach over and taste something new and wonderful. And this, Chiarello and Batali again agree, is what antipasto is all about.
Brett Martin is staff writer at Time Out New York, where he often reports on food.