With Marcel gone, the show is frantically scrambling to find a new villain. They try Mike on for size.
“He’s abrasive and annoying,” says Antonia gamely.
Nice try, but the Mike-as-baddie thing just isn’t going to stick—in fact, it barely makes it to the first commercial break. Yes, he is abrasive and annoying, but in sort of a lovable palooka way.
So Isaac Mizrahi is our Quickfire Judge. This I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that he has a ratings-challenged show on Bravo or that Padma has a jewelry line to hawk. You’re all so cynical!
“Fashion and cooking have a lot in common,” he points out. Oh yes, Isaac. All those stick-figure fashionistas—they love a good Bolognese.
Angelo says that fashion is his other passion (besides the continent of Asia, Russian mail order brides, Rid-Ex anti-itch cream, and tight pants). But that’s just his way. If today’s guest judge were the late Isaac Asimov, Angelo would say that science fiction was his other passion.
So the Quickfire is to make an aesthetically pleasing dish that doesn’t have to be delicious.
“I wanted to be a food stylist, back in the day,” says Angelo. (See what I mean?)
Nobody really masters this challenge, as far as I can tell. In fact, it kind of brings out the crazy in most of them.
Angelo makes what Fabio aptly calls “vomit in a bag.” It truly looks like it belongs in some sort of haz-mat bin. Angelo also can’t spell crocodile—he spells it crocadile—but hey, this is not Top Speller. (By the way, Bravo execs: I would actually watch a show called Top Speller.)
Fabio himself is inspired by beautiful women in the rain trying to stay dry. (Role playing must get pretty kinky in the Viviani bedroom: Girls, bring your umbrellas.)
He makes these strange lumps of tuna with “acid rain” lemon juice.
Antonia is inspired by The Giving Tree. (P.S. Never trust anyone who tells you that The Giving Tree is their favorite book. It means they don’t read.)
She makes a plate of lentils, nuts, and seeds that a hamster might actually send back to the kitchen.
Carla almost rises to the occasion with her beautiful little cucumber cup and cucumber lattice-work. But, the cup seems to be filled with Pepto Bismol, and then the smear of pink and green on the plate also adds to the dietary distress feel.
Note to chefs: Smears on plates are not appetizing.
Both Tre and Dale decide to go for the minimalist look, dotting their plates with a random assortment of ingredients.
“It looks like you finished cooking and this is what was left behind,” Mizrahi says to Dale. Maybe he doesn’t know who he’s insulting—Isaac, run for your life!!
“I’m a chef. I don’t care about a fashion designer’s opinion,” sniffs Dale, immediately going backstage to make an emergency phone call to his anger management sponsor.
Mike actually makes a lovely plate with egg yolk, roasted eggplant, and carrot puree. He’s my winner, but what do I know?
Tiffany makes almond gazpacho with “dirt” made from rye bread. Mmmmm, dirt.
Blais does something so bizarre, I don’t know what to make of it: black chocolate ice cream with menthol crystals and herbal salad.
It is strangely. . .cool looking (see above), kind of like a plate of broccoli that has been buried in Antarctica for a century. But appetizing?
“I actually want to eat that,” says Isaac. Huh.
And. . .Blais wins! Blais wins! Damn. He is unstoppable.
Elimination Challenge time.
If you ever assumed that Top Chef was simply too progressive a show to trot out the old Italians = mafia stereotype, guess again! This was one stereotype the show couldn’t refuse. (See what I did there?)
The gang from famed Italian restaurant Rao’s come in and everyone’s cowering and making mob jokes.
“They look like the Godfathers, I love it,” says Fabio.
Later he adds:
“Get your guns out, it’s an Italian challenge.”
Naturally, Lorraine Bracco, of Goodfellas and The Sopranos fame, will be our guest judge. Apparently, Joe Pesci was unavailable.
The challenge is to make an Italian feast, in three courses.
Antipasti goes to the signorinas: Carla, Antonia, and Tiffany.
Pasta course goes to Mike, Tre, and Dale
Secundi course goes to Blais, Angelo, and Fabio.
And suddenly, everyone’s Italian, albeit some more credibly than others:
We have the 3 actual Italians: Fabio, Mike, and Antonia. (Although, of the 3, Fabio is the most Italian of them all. Just ask him.)
Then we have the self-dubbed Black Italian: Tre.
Tiffany points out that she used to work at an Italian restaurant, and therefore is Italian by proxy, or something.
Carla considers Italian food to be comfort food and says “that’s what I do.”
Dale makes Italian food for his girlfriend.
Angelo once knew an Italian guy.
And so on. . .
They go to Rao’s and there’s all-Frank-Sinatra-all-the-time on the juke box (what? you were expecting Ric Ocasek?) and the walls apparently “smell of marinara.” Damn, that’s Italian.
Sitting around the table, along with the judges, are the owners and managers of Rao’s, as well as the longtime bartender named. . .Nicky Vest?
Okay, so maybe his name isn’t Nicky Vest, maybe it’s Nicky Vas or Nicky West. .. but with a vest that blindingly blingtastic, that’s all I could think of.
Basically, his vest looked like it was made from the Lite-Brite game from my childhood. He must’ve purchased it from the Johnny Weir leisure collection.
I ♥ Nicky Vest.
First course goes very well:
Everyone loves Carla’s minestrone soup, although one of the Rao’s owners says you could get minestrone like that in Wisconsin.
Lorraine Bracco disagrees and will now probably have him whacked.
Tiffany’s warm polenta terrine with Italian sausage is another hit. Nicky Vest says Tiffany’s hands are blessed, or should be blessed, or something. I couldn’t hear anything above the din of his vest.
Tom cracks that Italians don’t call it Italian sausage, they just call it sausage.
(Which reminds me of when I first moved to Baltimore and they served this mysterious thing called Jewish apple cake. Yeah, we have a name for that in the Weiss family: apple cake.)
(P.S. Mom, if you’re reading this. .. apple cake is yummy and would bring a smile to every Weiss family member’s face and who doesn’t want happy family members? Just sayin’.)
They also love Antonia’s mussels in white wine and fennel broth. It took Tom to a happy, nostalgic place.
Next up—the epic fail of the pasta course:
Mike’s homemade rigatoni crossed that line from al dente to “un-done-te” (thanks, Carla.)
Tre’s risotto is too firm, and focuses on the garnish more than the rice.
Dale’s brussels sprouts, pancetta, and pasta (which sorry, looked delicious to me) was apparently bland.
“This is what they eat in the witness protection program,” says Anthony Bourdain. (Every once in a while Anthony Bourdain says something that seems funny but actually isn’t. This is one of those times.)
“He’s not getting laid tonight,” says Bracco, since Dale apparently cooks this dish for his girlfriend.
(Dr. Melfi, how could you?)
Tom Colicchio promptly blushes.
Fabio’s chicken cacciatore with polenta was delicious. Anthony Bourdain says “It wiped away the stain of the previous course.” Oh snap.
Angelo’s sautéed pork with pancetta was good, but not very authentic tasting—too saucy.
Richard’s pancetta with broccolini and hot pepper was another hit, the flavors really shined through.
Meanwhile, Mike is back in the kitchen trying to convince himself that his undercooked rigatoni wasn’t going to be his undoing.
“It was al dente, but was it too al dente?” he muses. Spoiler alert: Yes it was.
The verdict is in. The judges want to see the antipasta course, plus Fabio.
Mike looks stunned. He reminds everyone that Padma is a woman of mysterious wiles and unpredictable ways.
Surely, the antipasto course—the broads, forchrissake—can’t be the winners.
“Congratulations,” says Padma. “You had our four favorite dishes.”
The bromance between Anthony Bourdain and Fabio continues: “I was in a dark place after the previous course and your polenta pulled me back to the light,” Bourdain says.
Oh, these two. They’re approaching “get a room” status. They’ve come such a long way since they almost came to blows in episode one.
But in the end, Antonia with her mussels-that-made-Tom-happy ™ wins.
Fabio is irked. Claims that Antonia’s mussels were actually French. Remember, Antonia may be Italian but she’s not Italian enough for Fabio.
Antonia comes bursting into the waiting room.
“I won!” she says.
There is a stunned silence. Mike stares. It’s all very awkward.
Finally, there is slow, half-hearted applause.
It reminded me of this scene in Not Another Teen Movie.
Padma and her minions want to see Dale, Tre, and Mike.
All of a sudden, Mike goes from seething with rage that he wasn’t in the top 3 to being extremely contrite and very aware that he blew it. (Nice turnaround, buddy.)
Here’s how it played out:
Basically, Dale had the suckiest dish, but there’s no way they were getting rid of Dale. He’s Final 3 material.
Mike’s dish would’ve been pretty good if he’d just used dry pasta and he threw himself on the mercy on the panel.
There’s a huge discussion about the right way to cook risotto. Tre claims he was trained to make his risotto stiff.
Tom says risotto needs to spread out on the plate.
So Tre is outta there.
“If I serve risotto in the future, it’s going to spread,” he says sweetly, and rushes home to remove The Godfather from his Netflix queue.