By Eric Barton
City & Shore Magazine
When Angelo Elia was a kid, any festival or holiday meant a feast, often spilling out into the street, with every nonna in the village making her specialty.
Elia’s mom would bake lasagna and maybe a timbalo, a legendarily complicated dish with layered ingredients wrapped in pasta. In the barbecue, she’d slow-cook baby lamb that his father brought home from his butcher shop. Near the end of the roasting, they’d add just-picked mushrooms and wild asparagus polenta. The smell would bring the neighbors, sometimes even the band that played for the parades.
“From a very young age, I can remember I could see how the food made people happy,” Elia says. “It’s what made me want to be a chef. I watched people gather around the food we made, and it made them happy.”
That festive atmosphere he remembers from his village’s gatherings is what Elia will use as inspiration for he’s hosting Feb. 21. Elia, who built a restaurant empire starting with his namesake Casa D’Angelo restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, will host it alongside celebrity chef Anne Burrell.
The two were paired by festival organizer Lee Schrager, putting two chefs together who favor an Italian cooking style of elevating good ingredients by cooking them simply. Speaking by phone recently, Burrell says she learned it during her time cooking in Italy years ago.
“I’m from upstate New York, and Italian food to me was chicken parm and scaloppini. I got to Italy and realized I had no idea what Italian food really was,” Burrell says. “The beauty of Italian cooking is that it’s about respecting the ingredients and just letting them be the star.”
As host of the Food Network show Worst Cooks in America, Burrell has hosted and put her name behind some of the festival’s biggest nights. But she says she savors smaller dinners like this one with Elia. “It’s just lovely when you get to interact with people,” she says. “At the big events, you get to see people for a hot minute if you’re lucky, but at this we actually get to have conversations.”
When she gets those one-on-one moments with people who attend dinners, she especially likes when the conversation turns to the tips she’s learned. As host of Worst Cooks, she’s learned many, although the main one is something she picked up from mom years ago.
“On Worst Cooks, I always ask people, ‘What happens when you follow a recipe?’ And people look at me like I’m crazy,” she says. So her top piece of advice for the home chef, even the seasoned ones, is to pick a recipe, whether it’s simple or something challenging, and master it. “I’ll admit it’s a very boring piece of advice to just follow a recipe. It’s very basic, but it also works.”
For Elia, he’s been participating in the festival for 15 years now. When it spread north into Broward in 2015, Elia was able to stay closer to home. This year the fest has a dozen events in Broward as part of the Crave Greater Fort Lauderdale Series. Broward events also include dinners hosted by Donatella Arpaia, Alex Guarnaschelli, Adam Richman and hometown chef Paula DaSilva, Executive Chef at the Burlock Coast at The Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale.
Elia and Burrell are collaborating on the menu for their event, and Elia says this is one of the fun parts of the festival. “We’re going to make a beautiful menu together,” he says. “We’re going to be very, very close for a couple days.”
Sitting at a table near the entrance of Casa D’Angelo one afternoon hours before service would begin, Elia talked about plans for the event, as deliveries arrived on pushcarts. The plan was for Burrell to handle passed hors d’oeuvres and dessert, with Elia taking the lead on the main dish. He considered rabbit but worried it wouldn’t appeal to a crowd. Instead perhaps they’d do a stuffed baby veal chop or maybe seafood. “Or what would be really nice? A petit osso buco,” he says, pointing his finger in the air to emphasize his moment of inspiration. “Maybe on top of white onions with a soft polenta.”
Even with his chain of restaurants and a bakery, Elia still often works the line at his flagship, Casa D’Angelo. Burrell says she’s looking forward to joining him there, because nowadays with celeb-chef status, it’s harder for her to find her way to cooking in a restaurant. She will have a sous chef fly down a day or two early to begin work at the restaurant, and then she’ll join in the prep for the night of the event.
“Dinners with SoBe are fun, because it’s like going on a field trip in someone else’s kitchen and seeing how they do things,” she says. “For a chef, this is like Spring Break.”
For Elia, he left his village and its festivals behind at 14 years old when he went to New York and started working in kitchens. “I wanted to be a chef no matter what,” he says.
Now, he spends almost every night there in his restaurant, splitting time between working the line and then making his way through the dining room. “I want to be here with all my guests,” he says. It reminds him of back home. It’s the festive atmosphere that always surrounded meals. It’s the memory he says he’s always looking to recreate at his adopted home in Fort Lauderdale.
Dinner hosted by Anne Burrell and Angelo Elia
Part of the CRAVE Greater Fort Lauderdale Series presented by Capital One, the dinner will be 7-10 p.m. Feb. 21 at Casa D’Angelo Ristorante, 1201 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $250 and can be purchased at sobewff.org/casaftl/.