Half of Foodie Pleasure (Kristina) loves cheese so it was a pleasant surprise that a recent Chopped episode was titled “Say Cheese!” The chefs had to use two types of cheese in each round, and we enjoyed seeing how the the varieties took shape throughout the rounds. As you know, we live and work in NY and are always excited to see local chefs in the Chopped kitchen. In this case, we were pleased to watch Chef Maurizio Crescenzo, owner of Grano Trattoria (Greenwich Village) and Taverna Di Bacco (Lower East Side), be named Chopped Champion. We caught up with him after his victory to learn more about him.
FP: How did you get your start with cooking?
MC: When I was 14 years old, I worked as a welder in Naples, Italy. Every day the workers would rotate who would cook lunch. When it was my day, a customer came in and was wowed by the aroma of my meal. The customer convinced me that I should go to culinary school and that is the path I took. I attended I.P.A.S. (Istituto Professionale Alberghiero Di Statoculinary) culinary school in Italy. I didn’t like the studying part of school, but I loved to cook!
My family lived on a farm so we always had fresh ingredients to use. This made cooking more accessible because all the ingredients I needed were right on my own property. Food was always the highlight of our day because we would get home from a long day of working and want to come home and eat.
FP: Sounds like you were born to be in the kitchen!
Congrats again on winning Chopped! Tell us about your experience on the show.
MC: My experience on Chopped was incredibly enlightening and humbling as well as stressful and enjoyable. We got to the studio at 6:00AM and didn’t leave until 11:30PM, so it was an extremely long day. My adrenaline was sky high which gave me the energy to pull through and win the competition.
Being on Chopped was a way for me to showcase my creativity and ability to cook under pressure. The most important lesson I learned is that you need to stick with what you know and rely on your skills. My cuisine is very homey and laid-back which is the style I wanted to come through in the dishes I prepared on the show.
FP: We can only imagine the pressure in the Chopped kitchen!
What was the hardest ingredient to work with?
MC: I was lucky enough to be featured on the ‘Say Cheese!’ episode, so the mystery baskets were filled with various cheeses and items that I have previously cooked with. The hardest ingredient for me was garlic scapes because I had never worked with them before. I thought they would make a good seasoning so I used them to flavor my Chicken Cacciatore with cheese mashed potatoes.
FP: We could go for some Chicken Cacciatore and cheese mashed potatoes right now!
What are your plans for the $10,000 award?
MC: With the $10,000 award, I plan to set up a fund for my best friend from Italy who passed away several years ago. He left behind a wife and two children, so the fund will be used by his family for travel expenses to visit America, which was always a life-long dream. Family and friends are extremely important to me so I am happy to make this dream come true.
FP: What a generous and honorable way to give back!
The menus at both Grano Trattoria and Taverna Di Bacco look delicious! Tell us how you came up with concept for both restaurants.
MC: When I first came to America, I barely spoke any English and I didn’t really know much about the neighborhoods in NYC. I was given an opportunity to open Grano Trattoria in Greenwich Village and took a chance when opening it up. The menu at Grano is more low-key food that reminds me of being back home in Italy. There is a brick oven where I like to do most of my cooking, especially when making pizzas.
As for Taverna di Bacco, I took a risk when opening it in the Lower East Side in 2011. The neighborhood is more young and sophisticated but I researched the area and knew a change was coming. Bacco has a bigger bar than Grano and has later business hours to keep up with the surrounding area. This is a very homey and neighborhood friendly restaurant. I really enjoy walking around the restaurant and introducing myself to all of the customers.
FP: We hope to visit both restaurants in the near future!
What are some of your favorite meals to cook at home for yourself or for family and friends?
MC: I really love to host gatherings with my family and friends because when I do, I enjoy surprising my guests. They think since they are going to an Italian chef’s house they will be served your typical Italian food, but that is not the case. I love cooking exotic food and experimenting with ingredients. A few months ago I made my guests lobster with spicy mango sauce and it was really delicious.
Besides preparing exotic food, I enjoy making soup because it is one of my favorite dishes to cook for my guests. I don’t have a preference in what type of soup, but as you saw in my Chopped episode love is the main ingredient in my soup.
My favorite meat to cook is roasted lamb. I love to prepare lamb with a side of vegetables and add some Indian spices.
FP: Cooking with love is key!
When you go out to eat, name some of your favorite places in NYC or other areas you’ve visited.
MC: For special occasions I love to go to Mas Farmhouse in Greenwich Village.
I also love Komegashi which is a Japanese restaurant located in Jersey City.
FP: We hear Mas Farmhouse is great! We interviewed Chef Galen Zamarra back in 2012.
What are some of your guilty pleasures? We like to call them foodie pleasures, hence the name 🙂
MC: My guilty pleasure is to take six inches of bread and scoop out the inside. Then I stuff it with mozzarella cheese and prosciutto with some spices and olive oil. Once I put all my ingredients inside, I cook it in the oven until the cheese is melted. This is similar to a panini, but it is definitely my guilty pleasure.
FP: We like the sound of that!
What are some of your non-cooking/food related interests and hobbies?
MC: Spending time with my wife and twin daughters is my favorite thing to do when I am not cooking. Besides spending time with my family, I love to ride my bicycle. During the spring and fall I bring my bike into the city and ride it back and forth between my two restaurants.
FP: Thank you so much for your time. We wish you continued success with your restaurants!