@LAFOODWINE: Giada’s Festa Italiana

(Los Angeles, CA) — We’ve flown in from Michigan the day before the LA Food & Wine event is due to start, just to get acclimated. Our hotel is the Westin Bonaventure, which has appeared in many films including TRUE LIES and IN THE LINE OF FIRE. After a day of getting our bearings, HeFed attends the kickoff event, hosted by Giada...

He Fed:

It is Giada De Laurentiis’ birthday and here she is, doing cooking demonstrations and hosting a block party. I guess there are worse ways to spend your birthday? I’ve been looking forward to tonight because (1) I love Italian food and (2) I’m curious to see how this Food & Wine event will differ from the Pebble Beach and NYC ones I’ve attended.

As luck would have it, I forgot to pack a razor and my stubble has progressed beyond “roguish” to “hobo-ish”. There’s a gift shop downstairs. I end up paying $5 for 5 two-blade disposables and $9 for shaving cream. That’ll teach me! I run hot water and proceed to pretty up. Just as I’m performing the last stroke, ZIP! The crappy razor nicks my chin. I then spend an hour trying to staunch the blood flow, finally getting it to stop shortly before I have to head down to the event. (Tip: deodorant stick.) I throw on some nice slacks and a short sleeve shirt I purchased years ago for our trip to Rome. A quick check in the mirror confirms I don’t look hideous, though that nick is a bullseye on my chin. Oh well.

A quick walk in the mild early evening lifts my spirits. The event space is between 1st and 2nd, right next to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Grand is completely closed off and lined with a red carpet, tents running the length, each housing chefs and wineries. A stage is at one end, where much of the music and special announcements take place. Both Delta and Lexus, being major sponsors, have oversized displays that are more like ultra-lounges. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is here too with a display that has a rooftop area.

VIPs are able to enter the event 30 minutes before other ticketholders. You haven’t seen a true feeding frenzy until you’ve witnessed grown men and women who can well afford to purchase any of these offerings many times over, shamelessly elbowing each other out of the way to get at a morsel. They do not stop to hear the chef’s description of preparation. They do not contemplate the delicate plating. They do not savor or discuss the flavor profile. They do not thank the chef. They put the food in the hole, careful not to look anyone in the eye, then throw away the detritus, already on a beeline for the next booth. It’s enough to make you sick. With my scabbed chin, I no longer feel like a freak.

After that initial 30 minutes, general ticketholders arrive and the process starts over. However, there seems to be a higher level of civility. I make my rounds slowly, careful to listen to any description, reading the placards, and then retiring somewhere quiet where I might better appreciate the food.

My first bite is the “Vitello Tonata” from Ray’s & Stark Bar, a large chunk of veal tongue topped with a bisected caper. It is buttery, silky meat with a slight but pleasant “gamey” taste. The caper adds a much needed tart counterpoint. Lately, I’ve been enjoying tongue cuts more and more.

From there, I head to the Stella Artois booth where Bart Vandaele has prepared a Proscuitto Waffle with pesto, roasted tomato, and parmegiano. It’s a savory, yeasty treat which pairs nicely with Leffe. I’ve always enjoyed Bart’s cooking, his thoughtful pairings, and his playful attitude. Hopefully we can visit his Belga Cafe in NYC at some point.

Smoked duck orecchiette at Scott Conant’s table is next. Although chef is making the rounds elsewhere, his staff serves up a little dish of smoky, salty pasta with a few kernels of sweet corn to add some fresh “pop”. It’s a delicious Italian bite and now I’m starting to understand the appeal of Conant’s cooking.

Chef Christopher Thompson from A16 dishes up a Sonoma Lamb Sausage with senise peppers and controne beans. He is kind enough to explain that senise peppers are originally from Italy, sweet with just a touch of heat, typically dried and fried. With the micro greens on top and the earthy beans below, the taste is reminiscent of a mini cassoulet.

Now it’s time for pizza! I head back to the entrance, where a mobile wood fired oven from 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria is dishing up pie after pie for hungry attendees. I get in line, hoping for a margherita slice but end up with their speciality Tartufo, with truffle cheese, mushrooms, and roasted garlic. Despite the truffle, I find it very very good, the dough redolent of wood and the cheese melted to ooey gooey perfection. I want one of these wood fired ovens!

Right about now, I’m starting to feel the effects of too much good food. But, dear reader, if you’ve endured this over-long article, I guess I can tuck in a bit more. It doesn’t hurt at all that Chef Antonia Lofaso is gorgeous, her beaming smile enticing me closer to her Braised Meatballs in a thin tomato basil sauce. The fresh ingredients perk me up, the bright basil reinvigorating my resolve. I snatch a quick short pour of rose wine, then move on.

Lamb Belly and roasted eggplant is in my future, it seems. Chef Zach Pollock of Solto has produced lightly charred chunks of fatty, crispy meat sprinkled with sesame seeds and surrounded with a shallow puddle of eggplant stew. Some strands of wild lettuce add texture.

My last bite is from Chef Jeff Mahin of Stella Barra Pizzeria, a hunk of crostini topped with burrata and tomato jam. Although I like my tomato jam a bit thicker and sweeter, it is a refreshing dessert to this extended dinner.

The night ends with Giada taking the stage to be serenaded in Italian from an opera singer. Duff Goldman presents a cake. Then the party shifts into dance party mode, and I decide it’s time to head back to the hotel for water and a bit of digestion.

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