18 questions with Top Chef Master Tony Mantuano

click to enlarge The many faces of chef Tony Mantuano - photo by Faiyaz Kara
photo by Faiyaz Kara
The many faces of chef Tony Mantuano
Tony Mantuano, the affable James Beard Award winner and Top Chef Master, is a purist at heart when it comes to Italian cuisine. He's been referred to (affectionately, I should add) as "The Godfather," and his Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant, Spiaggia, has been going strong for 30-plus years serving Italian cuisine that's "innovative yet mindful of tradition." Spiaggia also happens to be the crown jewel in the Levy Restaurants portfolio, which includes Portobello in Disney Springs, where Mantuano is a consulting chef. We sat down with the autodidact cook after an appearance at Portobello and talked pasta, politics, tennis and his last meal on Earth.

OW: You were a music major in college, and wanted to be a trombonist. So who were you inspired by?
TM: I modeled my playing after the horn section in the Tower of Power.

OW: Working in restaurants to earn extra money led you away from the frying pan of music and into the fire of restaurant kitchens. What was the moment of realization that cooking is what you wanted to do for a living?
TM: It came naturally to me. When you find something you love to do, you will never “work” another day in your life. I was just born to cook.

OW: You've had a longstanding relationship with your business partner Larry Levy (of Levy Restaurants). How did your partnership with Larry come about, and what is it that drew you to Larry?
TM: Our partnership started in 1983. My fiancée at the time, Cathy, was a server at a restaurant that Larry Levy owned called Chestnut Street Grill. Larry would tell Cathy that he wanted to open an Italian restaurant on Oak Street and Michigan Avenue, and Cathy told Larry, “You should really talk to my fiancé.” The rest is history. What really drew me to Larry Levy was how we shared the same passion for Italian food.

OW: In the early '80s, you were one of the first American chefs to extern at some highly regarded restaurants in Italy. What is it you took away from that experience and brought back to Chicago?
TM: What I took away … In Italy, restaurants in the country’s many regions all have different flavors, and history relates to each region, so looking to the past is important for inspiration. The restaurants there all have a level of elegance and hospitality that make guests feel they are the most important part of the restaurant.

OW: What’s the best food city in Italy right now, and why?
TM: Right now it’s Rome. They respect tradition, on one hand, and on the other there are a lot of new and younger chefs doing their own thing. Best of both worlds – tradition and modern-age cooking.

OW: You first started making pasta from scratch in the Reagan era – a time when the practice was considered too time-consuming and unnecessary. What made you dig in your heels in the face of all the resistance from your fellow cooks?
TM: Making pasta from scratch produces a better-quality product that’s worth the effort. The result is something you can be really proud of. You’re also rewarded by the guest feedback and engagement. It’s just worth the effort.
click to enlarge (From L-R): Jonathan Waxman, Tony Mantuano and Susur Lee on Top Chef Masters - Bravo TV
Bravo TV
(From L-R): Jonathan Waxman, Tony Mantuano and Susur Lee on Top Chef Masters
OW: You were on Season 2 of Top Chef Masters. I've spoken to chefs who've turned down appearing on the show for myriad reasons, so what made you agree to do the show?
TM: It was the second season of the franchise and it was all still very fresh and impactful. It was just one of those things that was on my bucket list and I was excited to check it off. It was an amazing experience and I made lifelong friends.

OW: Which chef really impressed you during that season of Top Chef Masters?
TM: All for one reason or another, but Jonathan Waxman for his calmness and Susur Lee for his technical brilliance.

OW: You've read your fair share of cookbooks. Which one made the greatest impact on you, and which one would you recommend every up-and-coming chef read?  
TM: There are so many books that have made a great impact. If I had to choose one, it would have to be Italian Regional Cooking by Ada Boni. I also recommend Wine Bar Food and the Spiaggia Cookbook!

OW: Will 'Wine Bar Food,' your outpost at the US Open, be back in 2016? And who do you think will win the men's and women's titles this year?
TM: Yes, I will be back. I root for the Italians … and Novak Djokovic.

OW: [Jonathan] Waxman likes to play tennis – ever hit the court with your Top Chef buddy?
TM: I dominated him on the court. Just kidding. I met him at the bar after his match [laughs].

OW: We've seen an explosion of celebrity restaurants here. Given your long association with Portobello as a consulting chef, what sort of direction do you want to see Portobello take here in the new Disney Springs?
TM: We are going to stay true to who we are and what our guests know us best for, which is great Italian cuisine.

OW: Obama celebrated his presidential victory at Spiaggia in 2008. If Donald Trump celebrates his presidential victory at Spiaggia in 2016, what one dish would you want to serve? What if it's Hilary Clinton?
TM: Trump – straight to the point – I would do meat. For Hilary, a nine-course tasting menu – the full experience, with wine of course!

OW: You closed your first venture outside the Midwest – Lorenzo in Miami's South Beach – in 2014. What went wrong?
TM: It just wasn’t the right fit.

OW: Any thoughts of having your own venture here in Orlando, or is your association with Portobello enough?
TM: I have a series of restaurants in Chicago and, as my mom used to say, “Your plate is full enough.”

OW: Outside of Italy, what's your favorite travel destination and why?
TM: London, for their vibrant food scene.

OW: At this stage in your career, are you thinking about the sort of legacy you want to leave?
TM: I’m not going anywhere just yet. 

OW: OK, if you were, what would your last meal on Earth be?
TM: Culatello and Parmigiano-Reggiano with Acetaia San Giacomo Balsamico Tradizionale (with Ferrari Metodo Classico); linguine con le vongole (with Librandi Critone); charcoal grilled bistecca alla Fiorentina (with Castello di Ama Chianti Classico); and for dessert, Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Superiore with biscotti.


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