Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mama's Meatballs and One Night with Rocco

Most people know Rocco DiSpirito as the cute but slightly self-centered chef from the 2005 reality show “The Restaurant”, or maybe you read about him in a cooking magazine or saw his pretty face on a talk show (he’s also recently popped up as a guest judge on Top Chef).
Part chef, part business man, he certainly has made a name for himself, but his character has earned quite a reputation as well; unfortunately, it' s not as pretty as his face.

I experienced this first hand back in 2002 when I had had the ‘pleasure’ of working with Rocco. This was long before his reality show aired, when he was executive chef at New York City’s Union Pacific. I was working as a line cook at one of Montreal’s top restaurants and we hosted Rocco as a guest celebrity chef for two nights. The place was packed out as Montreal gourmets came to sample a 7-course tasting menu featuring Rocco’s Union Pacific food and to meet the young star.

I’m sure he was smooth as butter in the dining room, but my kitchen experience was rather different.
Rocco’s presence in the kitchen was wildly irregular. Half of the time he chatted and laughed into his cell phone, barely glancing at plates as they went out, and the rest of the time he played the roll of a typical tyrannical Head Chef, snapping at people and letting us know he was far, far superior.
I kept my head down and worked my butt off, but it was hard not to smile to myself at his silly get-up: carefully tousled hair, snug designer jeans, pinstriped button down shirt and a chef’s jacket that looked more like an after thought. I guess it was fitting, as the only work he did all night was shave a few black truffles onto his osso bucco.

I was plating two of his starters that night: Maine scallops in tomato water and some sort of nasty lobster in a Reisling jelly. He had a few choice words for my plating style, sneering at me with such mockery it took my breath away. His sarcasm was sharp and his arrogance unmistakable. Classy.

After the service was over, my ever-hospitable and gracious boss brought a few bottles of Dom Perignon into the kitchen and Rocco stole the show by dramatically slicing the tops off the bottles with a cleaver and flamboyantly filling the glasses as if he was hosting his own party. He was all smiles now, running his fingers through his hair and flirting with the girls. A few of the staff were having him sign that evenings’ menu as a keepsake, but a few of us hung back, not wishing to stroke his massive ego further and really not caring if we got his autograph or not.

Eventually he approached us. He lifted himself up onto my work station, and to my chagrin, stretched out full length on the stainless steel. He propped his head up on his hand, crossed his legs and said sweetly,

“Don’t you want my autograph, too?”

Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

Google “Rocco’s meatballs” and you will get a whopping 32, 700 hits . He’s taken his mama’s recipe and turned it into an empire. People raved over them on his reality show and now Dull Normals like us can order them online for only $39, or make them ourselves as the 'top secret' recipe is out! I am not really a spaghetti and meatballs kind of girl, but my little Noah was sick with a cold this week and I wanted to make him some home style comfort food. They didn't end up under the high chair, he tucked right into a bowl, so I guess if it's good enough for New York's elite, it's good enough for him!

We enjoyed them too; I'll be making them again.

Thanks Mama Dispirito!

Mama's Meatballs

1/3 cup chicken stock
1/4 yellow onion
1 clove garlic
¼ cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1/2 lb ground veal
1/3 cup plain breadcrumbs
2 eggs
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
3-6 cups of your favorite marinara sauce
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Place the chicken stock, onion, garlic and parsley in a blender of food processor and puree.

2. In a large bowl, combine the pureed stock mix, meat, bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, parsley and salt. Combine with both hands until mixture is uniform. Do not over mix.

3. Put a little olive oil on your hands and form mixture into balls a little larger than golf balls. They should be about ¼ cup each, though if you prefer bigger or smaller, it will only affect the browning time.

4. Pour about 1/2-inch of extra virgin olive oil into a straight-sided, 10-inch-wide sauté pan and heat over medium-high flame. Add the meatballs to the pan (working in batches if necessary) and brown meatballs, turning once. This will take about 10-15 minutes.

5. While the meatballs are browning, heat the marinara sauce in a stockpot over medium heat. Lift the meatballs out of the sauté pan with a slotted spoon and put them in the marinara sauce. Stir gently. Simmer for one hour.

6. Serve with a little extra Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled on top. Serve alone or over spaghetti (in which case, you will need 6 cups of marinara). Serves 6.


Anonymous said...

Great read! I love behind the scenes stories like this. Well, at least you got a great meatball recipe! Thanks to his mom!

Melanie said...

That was a hilarious post - I could picture everything you were describing and I would have had a few choice words for ol' Rocco if he would have asked me the same question about his autograph. Too funny! And...the meatballs do look terrific! With three little boys of my own - I'll have to try them. I bet they'll love them.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I have to admit that I got hooked on "The Restaurant" -- like watching a train wreck -- and I couldn't believe that Rocco's mom kept working and working herself into exhaustion for a son who wasn't willing to work hard himself. But the meatballs do look wonderful.

Charlus said...

Great story! No wonder Anthony Bourdain is so fond of ripping into him.

Marie Rayner said...

Great looking meatballs. These full of themselves celebrity chef's bore me to death. I have had the opportunity to deal with a few in my career as a professional cook and to be perfectly honest my own mother is more of a star to me than any of them! Humility wins for me every time.

grace said...

what a shame. i guess mr bourdain was right on the money, so now you've given me an excuse to adore him even more. :)

Peter M said...

Aimee, you remembered to tell the Rocco story...thanks!

Rocco 0 - Momma 2.

He gets a zero for being a dick and momma wins everyone over with her meatballs.

Great photo.

Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

Would it make you smile if I said I will have to Google Rocco to see who he is. I just don't know. But his mamma should be signing autographs with her delicious meatballs:D

RecipeGirl said...

OMG I love that story. I do have to say that I wouldn't give a rat's ass if I had his autograph. I know his name, but I have no idea what he even looks like. I'd like his momma's autograph though for her yummy-looking meatballs!

Emily said...

What a d*ck. Seriously. I thought he was kind of cute and charming on Top Chef, but now I know better.

However, your meatballs look delish.

LyB said...

I have yet to meet a man so full of himself! At least that encounter made for a great post, so funny! Thanks for the recipe, it sounds delicious!

Aimée said...

Hi dobetter- That's how I see it, even the biggest dork is good for something.

Hi Melanie- I wish now I have said a few choice words to Rocco, but I held my peace. Too bad. Thanks for stopping by UtHC!

Hi Lydia- I did enjoy the show too, even thought it was a bomb.

Hi Charlus- Tony is my hero. (Welcome, BTW!)

Hi Marie- Amen. Well said!

Hi Grace- Yep, Tony is the bomb!

Hi Peter- You said what I implied. :)

Hi Valli- Rocco would not be happy. :) I couldn't care less!

HI recipegirl- You're like me, I mean, it's all about the food, isn't it?

Hi emiline- Charming he can be. I guess he knows when the camperas are rolling and the (culinary) world is watching.

Hi Lyb- Lucky you, hope that you never meet such an ego.

Culinary Cowgirl said...

This cracked me up. He's always struck me as a bit high maintenance. I worked with a pretty well know chef once (a bit of a pretty boy and novelty at the time) and he was equally "inflated" :) Thanks for telling the story.

Katy said...

It always bums me out when chefs whose cooking I admire turn out to be not-so-nice people -- I've heard that from several sources about Alice Waters, which bums me out because I love her recipes! Your meatballs look wonderful though!

Zaak said...

Never heard of him, but it seems he's got balls. I bet he's a lonely guy.

Super story.

winedeb said...

Never heard of the guy but I enjoyed the story! Had to chuckle as I know quite a few chefs that fit that same personality.
But...those meatballs look and sound like they have some classy character!
Hope Noah is doing better!

Deborah said...

Oh, my - I am laughing so hard right now! What a great story! The meat ball recipe does sound good.

Aimée said...

Hi cowgirl- You know the type alright.

Hi Katy- Welcoem to UtHC! Interesting about Alice, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Hi Zaak- Thanks!

Hi Deb- It seems that celebrity chefs and big egos go hand in hand

Hi Deborah- I'm glad I made you smile!

Kate said...

“Don’t you want my autograph, too?”

PLEASE. Please. Tell us you said "No thanks" or "What for?"

Please assure me you didn't give into that self-centered moron.

puppymomma said...

That is a fantastic story (even though it probably was a difficult night to say the least) and a wonderful meatball dish!

I think Rocco got a little payback with that horrible plastic surgery he had. I think he looks like a joke now. Oh, and after The Restaurant I think the rest of the world got to see his true colors.

April was in CA now MA said...

I admit I watched some of that show, but only because my jaw was on the floor (much like when I read your great story) at how much of an azz he is! How can someone who is so irresponsible even get that far..ugh. Train wreck! I saw a presentation for his cookware on QVC and his mother was with him. She's a saint for putting up with him...luckily for him a mother's love is blind! hehe On a positive note those meatballs look incredibly tasty!

Helene said...

I just want to smack him everytime he is on tv. He must have very small...feet :)

Anonymous said...

Great story!

I actually went to his restaurant in NY and was kind of unimpressed, except for the meatballs!I didn't meet him, but his mom was a freaking sweet heart....kinda glad I didn't meet him, after that story!

Thanks for the recipe! I'm trying it this week!

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

If the meatballs are as good as your story, they'll be wonderful. Nice juicy gossip, Aimée! No one is "special" enough to act like that.

Cookie baker Lynn said...

Oh gosh, what a piece of work. So funny to see the behind the scenes side of life.

Meatballs make my soon to be son-in-law very happy, so I'll print out this recipe for my daughter. Thanks!

Heidi Kärkkäinen said...

Heh, love to read Behind the Scenes-stories... I'm not suprised the real nature of Rocco, I guess the fame does it... The show was pretty funny, too. This is the first time I'll post a comment although I've been reading your blog about 5 months now. Your blog got me started with all my extensive food blog reading as I was searching info about Montreal (have been studying here since January) and found your site. I won't try the meat balls as I don't eat red meat but gosh are there so many yummy goodies you've made so far! So many things to bake, so little stomach... :D

BellyWoman's Rant said...

Hilarious! I hope he realizes how lucky he was that you didn't use a cleaver on him! I had no idea who he was either. If only he know how little we care!

Melanie Anne said...

What a fun post--you are very polite to be able to hold your tongue with ol Rocco! Ugh!
Those meatballs do look really great! I bet my guys would love them!I will put them on the menu! Thanks!

Nora B. said...

Hi Aimée,
Just dropping a quick hello & hope that you and the kids are doing well.


David Hall said...

Justa likea mamma makesa! Or something like that anyway. Very similar to mine too. Hope life is good Aimee.


Anonymous said...

I CERTAINLY hope they DISINFECTED that work table after Rocco exposed it to his vermin!!

Aimée said...

Hi Kate- I mumbled some sort of 'no thanks' and got out of there!

Hi Puppymomma- Welcome to UtHC! Plastic surgery? Now that you mention it,he does look a little clownish.

Hi April- His mom is pretty hard core, I agree!

Hi Helen- Good one.

Hi Jasmine- I doubt he spent much time at the resto...

Dana said...

AMAZING story. I love it! I work in TV, so we get some of the same stuff here (some of those "brilliant reporters" are simply "ego maniacs"...). I would have done exactly what you did at the end of the night -- no need to amplify the already nauseating levels of self-importance... But I must admit...these meatballs do look tasty!!

Nina Timm said...

Your photo of Mama's Meatballs look way better than mine. I am soooo jealous!!1

Anonymous said...

Yum! These are the best meatballs I've ever tasted... Mike concurs :)

Tracy said...

Great story, well told. I'm not surprised, though.

Denise Moore said...

I just found your blog, such a funny story. I am not much of a cook but I enjoy reading your blog and recipes.

ChefNick said...

He sounds like a royal jerk. I'm very glad his show crashed and burned -- he came off as a total prick.

Well done.

L said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rocco said...

OMG Aimee I'm so sorry! Sounds like one of my hall of fame jerkiest moments-lets chalk it up to youth & irrational exuberance. If its any consolation I know the customers were happy with the food Normand and I prepared. Glad Noah likes both Mama's cooking. Wait till u try the new healthy version! Let me know if he likes those as much. Xo

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