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Naples Winter Wine Festival 2011: The Secret to Great Cooking

Tony MantuanoDid you know that the secret to great Italian cooking is to leave one ingredient out? That’s what Tony Mantuano, this year’s Naples Winter Wine Festival Chef de Cuisine, told us. Just which ingredient should be left out he didn’t say, so we’ll just assume it’s one of the ones in the middle. Regardless, we are very excited about making pasta-less lasagna or a nice chicken-less chicken cacciatore tonight for dinner. Mmm, just cacciatore. These are the types of insight you never get from Paula Deen.

Of course, certain ingredients are necessary, and it’s best to be a world-class chef before you go around yanking ingredients out of signature dishes. And on that front, chef Mantuano qualifies—after all he is the guiding light/chef/partner of famed Spiaggia, Chicago’s only four-star Italian restaurant. He’s also a recipient of the 2005 James Beard Foundation Award for “Best Chef: Midwest.” You might also recognize his smiling face from season two of Bravo’s Top Chef (his executive chef, Sarah Grueneberg, is competing on the ninth season of the reality series and will be in Naples assisting Mantuano in the kitchen), as well as numerous stints on The Today Show, Nightline, The Early Show and Martha. If that’s not impressive enough, Spiaggia was awarded a Michelin star in 2010, an honor reaffirmed this year. No wonder the place was a regular haunt of President Obama during his time in the Windy City.


“He came in here before he even was senator,” says Mantuano. “(He and Michelle) came here on dates, so I got to know them very well. They celebrated winning the election here.” Not bad for a kid from Kenosha, Wisc.

Of course, Mantuano is well known to attendees of the Wine Festival, having prepared dinners in years past. But this year is special for him.

“When you consider the names who have been the Chef de Cuisine over the years, you realize you are in really special company,” says Mantuano, referring to chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Emeril Lagasse and Tom Colicchio. “It is like seeing your name in lights.

“You know, as we do events around the country, the Naples Winter Wine Festival is the one event that is the benchmark. The way it is organized. The way the money goes to the programs. The way the auction is run. Once you’ve been to Naples, you know this is the way it should be done. It is just so incredibly successful.”

Part of that success comes from brilliantly matching chefs and vintners for the dinners and this year is no exception.

“The special thing right away is being paired with Gaia Gaja,” says Mantuano. “Easily the top of the top, the most prestigious of the Italian wines … those wines are so rare, so elegant, so delicious that makes it really, really special.”

So does that mean he has something special planned for his dinner? “Actually, no,” he says with a laugh. “The reason any of us are selected is because people like what we do. So we’ll just do what we do.”

Which means he’s probably going to leave something out.  

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