When Italian food is the name of the game, no two will do it better than Cooking Channel’s own Debi Mazar and Gabriele Corcos, so it’s no surprise that this husband-and-wife duo was on hand to host as the South Beach Wine & Food Festival inaugurated its first-ever Al Fresco Italian Feast last night. The hosts of Extra Virgin, plus native Italian and fearless Food Network competitor Fabio Viviani, as well as dozens of America’s greatest Italian chefs, came together underneath the colorfully lit tents along the sandy shores of Miami to dish out a true feast of a meal celebrating the best of Italian comfort foods and pay tribute to pay tribute to Ronzoni Pasta’s 100th anniversary. Though Mother Nature surprised partygoers with unseasonably low temperatures for Florida, the cool air didn’t stop anyone from cozying up to heaping plates of classic-red-sauce pasta, cheesy ravioli and plenty of sweet roasted meats as they danced to a DJ-band mash-up in the sand.
FN Dish was on hand with Gabriele and Debi as they mingled with fans at their packed booth, where they served guests a hefty three-fold offering (pictured above). “Because we’re hosting, we’re not making just one item; we have a little platter,” Gabriele told us, speaking of his trio of garlic-guanciale pasta, hearty roasted lamb chops and fennel-orange arugula salad. “To me there’s no party without meat,” explained Gabriele of the need to serve the tender lamb chops, though he was quick to admit that it is this rustic four-ingredient pasta he craves most of all. “I like its story because it’s a recipe of farmers and shepherds,” he said. “It’s very simple. It has some cured pig jowl, pecorino cheese — very nice and salty and crisp — sage and garlic. That’s all there is.”
While traditional pasta indeed made a star showing at Debi and Gabriele’s stand, it was meat that showed up most prevalently last night, especially meatballs and roasted porchetta, an Italian pork roast. For Fabio, the event was a chance to honor his heritage and showcase a favorite (pictured above) from none other than Nonna. “This is my grandma’s meatball. … This is, like, a 200-year-old recipe,” he said proudly of his simmered beef meatballs both laced and topped with ricotta, served alongside a refreshing farro salad. “I’m glad that when there is something Italian going on they give me a shout; I like that,” added Fabio. “It makes me remember where I’m coming from, because sometimes between hot dogs and cheeseburgers, we forget,” he explained. “I’m glad to be an ambassador.”
At a few stations, it wasn’t so much what was on the outside of the meatball as what was within it: more meat and warm cheese. While Fork & Balls presented a meatball filled with shredded short ribs, Chef Scott Tacinelli from New York City’s Quality Italian combined another Italian all-star — chicken Parmesan — with a meatball for an over-the-top bite (pictured above) highlighting the best of sweet and savory flavors, crunchy breading and gooey cheese. As his team served this surprisingly light dish, each plate was finished with a quick drizzle of Calabrian chile honey, which added a welcome punch of spice.
Chef and owner Louie Bossi of the titular Fort Lauderdale restaurant took porchetta to a DIY level by hand-carving each slice of meat on the spot as it was served. This herb-laced roast shone alongside his Strozzapreti Pasta tossed in a bright San Marzano sauce.
The Big Apple’s Charlie Bird eatery dished out porchetta, as well, but Chef Ryan Hardy featured it shredded and piled between the bun to create a rich, juicy slider.
As is the scene at most Italian feasts, the meal wasn’t complete without a sweet treat; guests grabbed a few dessert from Ciao Imports, offering decadent chocolate-drenched cream puffs, plus apple and lemon tarts (pictured above).
Stay tuned to FN Dish all weekend long for more insider coverage of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
Photos courtesy of Getty Images and Maria Russo