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Cooking (or trying to) in Fabio Viviani's Italian kitchen

Two-time "Top Chef" contestant Fabio Viviani has us over for a modern dinner party to cook with the ingredients of his native Italy.

The sounds coming from the Food 52 kitchen are Motown — not chosen by "Top Chef" fan favorite Fabio Viviani. He prefers the energy of heavy metal, like Kiss and Poison, though “AC/DC is good but it’s too complicated for cooking.”

It helps that he’s working with the foods of his homeland: Grana Padano and Montasio cheeses, and the prosciuttos of San Daniele and Parma. “I grew up with these ingredients,” says the Florence-born Viviani. “For me it's not even work, for me it's, ‘Keep eating prosciutto di Parma.’” He punctuates this by stealing a bite from the display along the front of his counter.

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Not winning “Top Chef” (twice!) hasn’t exactly dampened his Stateside ambitions — he talks about them like blips on the radar of his career, which began at the age of 11 when he started (unofficially) working at a bakery in Florence. Viviani has several restaurants here and in Italy, as well as his own line of wines (“I've been a wine drinker for the last 30 years, and I'm 36!”) and cookware.

Things get a little more complicated once Viviani gets behind the chef’s counter trying to fire up the stove. In the end, he has to call over one of the staff to explain the induction cooktop. “What does 9 mean? I know medium heat but is 9, like, purgatory?”

The process of creating prosciutto goes back centuries, and the longer the meat is aged (usually between 15 and 24 months), the sweeter it becomes. Viviani pairs the San Daniele with cantaloupe for an amuse bouche, and the Parma goes around a meatloaf: Because of its high fat, its becomes a crust that holds the meats together.

“I cook with fire; I can't cook with technology,” he jokes. “That's why I teach, ‘Cook with common sense, not technology.’”

As an entertainer (as chefs have always been, though moreso now) Viviani stresses pleasing guests not just when they take a bite but throughout the cooking process. When it comes to dinner parties at home, “It's not the time to impress anybody with a lengthy cooking technique, that's done.”

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“People are sick and tired of waiting too much time in the kitchen for something," he continues. "At the end of the day you're putting it in your mouth and chewing and eating."

That kitchen common sense builds up one recipe at a time, so pick something simple, get quality ingredients, and just start cooking. Take it from him: “I'm a firm believer that good food, it's very simple to make."

Two tips for this dish: Don’t bake with raw tomatoes, which won't cook properly while soaking your pastry. Also, lining the dough with cheese will provide a layer of insulation against whatever you put on top from making it soggy.

11/2 pints grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup coarsely grated Montasio cheese, divided
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 shallot, sliced
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 cup baby arugula
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp black pepper

Directions:

Heat oven to 400°F. Unfold the pastry on parchment paper,and with a rolling pin, flatten and smooth, then with a fork prick all over. Place on a baking sheet.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add tomatoes, shallot, salt and pepper. Cook, tossing occasionally, until tomatoes begin to release their juices (4 to 5 minutes). Add wine; cook until nearly evaporated, about 1 minute.

Sprinkle the pastry with half the Montasio, leaving a hal-inch border. Brush borders with mustard; spread tomato mixture over cheese. Bake until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. To serve, top with arugula and remaining cheese.

 

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