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Cooking with Spiaggia Chef Tony Mantuano 
Mar. 1, 2010 8:17 am 

Cooking with Chef Tony Mantuano

I have generally tried to focus this blog on light cooking. But when this opportunity I couldn't not go and I couldn't not write about it.

For my day job, I work for the University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As part of my job, I get to attend LAS alumni functions. On Saturday, the LAS Alumni Association hosted Mastering Italian Cuisine with Chef Tony Mantuano at his Cafe Spiaggia.

According to materials provided by LAS, four-star Chef Tony Mantuano is known in Chicago and internationally as an influential culinary force. The James Beard Foundation named him “Best Chef: Midwest” in 2005. Chef Mantuano is known for utilizing authentic Italian products of the highest quality, conducting cooking classes, and leading culinary tours of favorite Mediterranean destinations.

Chef Mantuano opened Spiaggia to critical acclaim in 1984. Under his leadership, Spiaggia continues to mark the culinary map. Spiaggia is the only four-star Italian restaurant in Chicago. His first book, “The Spiaggia Cookbook: Eleganza Italiana in Cucina," co-authored with Cathy Mantuano, was named by Food & Wine magazine as one of the top 25 cookbooks of 2004 and was also nominated for a James Beard award.

In his more recent cookbook “Wine Bar Food," Cathy and Tony Mantuano demonstrate how to re-create the Mediterranean lifestyle at home. Their book features simply prepared dishes which can be shared as small plates or for a sit-down dinner.

Chef Mantuano also has appeared on PBS, CNN, FOX and The Food Network. He is a frequent contributor to local Chicago television and radio and has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Chicago Tribune. He will also be on the next season of Top Chef Masters on The Food Network.

The event included creating two of our own dishes, Garlic Gulf White Shrimp with Calabrian Chilies and Rosemary, as well as Handrolled Potato Ghocchi with Beech Mushrooms and Parmigiano Reggiano. We also got the opportunity to taste two Italian wines, a 2008 Verdicchio Dei Castelli Di Jesi  and a 2008 Montepulcaino.

Each table worked with its own chef and anyone who wanted to got the opportunity to try their hand. Chef Mantuano talked us through the dishes, as well as some general thought on cooking. One of the things that really stuck with me was when he said, "The most important ingredient is the one you leave out." Loading a dish up with a lot of ingredients, he said, is usually done to cover flaws in either ingredients or preparation. This was a great point and one I had been moving toward for some time, focusing on trying to bring out the best from ingredients.

Another part of the discussion focused on olive oil and olives themselves. Chef Mantuano said he felt any cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from the Mediterranean was good, the differences coming from the type of olive used. However, regarding California olive oils he said, "California may think it is a Mediterranean country, but they aren't. At least not yet." 

He also pointed out that olive oil is much like spices and herbs in that it has a limited shelf life. Olive oil should be purchased and used within one year of being bottled. Most good olive oils will have a bottling date that you can use to judge. If it doesn't it will have a "use-by" date. That date, however, will be three years from the date of bottling, so subtract two. If the oil has turned a sandy color, toss it.    

Another high point of the day was getting to hear from and meet Sommeleir Steven Alexander, wine director for Spiaggia. Steve is well known down here in East-Central Illinois for, with his friend Thad Morrow, opening Bacaro, a wonderful Italian wine bar. Of the wines he introduced us to, my favorite was the Montepulciano. This wine, from the Abruzzo region of Italy, was wonderfully full-flavored, but not overpowering or too sweet. Nancy and I went looking for some immediately after the event, but settled for a Sangiovese, which has many similarities.

Finally, we got to meet Spiaggia Executive Chef Sara Grueneberg. It was very clear that she and Chef Mantuano were on the same page when it came to their love of Italian cuisine.

All-and-all, it was an incredible event. Thanks to all at the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences involved in putting it on and a very special thank you to Chefs Mantuano and Grueneberg and Sommelier Alexander for making it so much fun.
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I love food! But I let that love get the best of me and my weight ballooned to more than 300 pounds. My wife and I joined Weight Watchers and, over a three-year period, I lost 100 pounds. However, I refused to give up on the foods I love, from Alfredo to cheeseburgers. I set out to find ways to eat almost anything I wanted, but to prepare it in a healthy way. Now, I'm sharing my love of food and cooking with others interested in living a healthy lifestyle.
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