There’s an old saying in sports—a tie is like kissing your sibling. There was always going to be a winner on this week’s episode of Top Chef Duels, but with the series reuniting its resident kissing cousins, Mike Isabella and Antonia Lofaso, in an Italian family style duellare, there was also going to be some familial baci before the end credits rolled.
Both Mike and Antonia contributed memorably decent performances on their respective seasons of Top Chef, but each surprised with deep runs on All-Stars; Mike made it all the way to the final before being bested by Richard Blais. One of the most memorable parts of that standout season, though, was the Ellis Island challenge—where the bickering Italian-Americans learned they were related and their relationship took on a new tenor.
And though the constant harping on the family factor—if you had a drink of Campari each time the word “cousin” was said, you’d be sbronzo by the first commercial break—on a show that often creates artificial disharmony and chippiness among the competitors was expected, tonight’s duel captures the affinity between two of the series’ more skilled cooks and entertaining personalities. There is warmth and respect here—both offer unequivocal praise of the other’s strengths, even if they’re quick to point out shortcomings. Isn’t that what family’s all about?
Italy will always be the culinary home turf for each of these chefs, but, as Curtis Stone explains, there are as many Italian cuisines as there are tattoos on Mike’s arms or eye-rolls and shade thrown from Antonia’s pupils. On All-Stars, each succeeded with a different orientation to the “boot”—Antonia cooked the classics (even at Rao’s, as intimidatingly Italian as American dining room can be) while Mike blended the cuisine with his own new-school Mediterranean influences. In the same way as you could always identify a Richard Blais experimentation, Mike and Antonia both made their marks by cooking food that was theirs.
For Antonia, that meant conjuring a quickfire that allowed her to cook a signature rice ball featured prominently on the menu at her new restaurant, Scopa. (It’s there—I checked.) Parsley-seasoned rice, beef Bolognese, peas, fresh mozzarella, and ricotta make up a dish with her handwriting all over it, though the sheer size of that ball was a little unnerving.
I know I was hard on Brooke last week for a vegan dessert challenge that played to her specific strengths, but Antonia’s challenge feels different because Mike has a chance. At least his arancini (which, again, looks distinctively like the food he’s always cooked on the show) isn’t too shabby, though the combination of pine nuts, ground beef, golden raisins, fennel, mint, and cinnamon with spiced rice tomato sauce doesn’t sound like any part of Italy I’ve ever heard of.
Mike has always used his on-camera time for silly self-aggrandizement: I’d forgotten about his self-satisfied cackle, and part of me is convinced that half of the things he says in the stew room are said to piss off Antonia when she watches the episode. He’s at it again, referencing his “new techniques” for old dishes, though the Mediterranean (and at times Middle Eastern) influences have been an Isabella trick since his eye-tattooed hand first placed a plate in front of a Top Chef judge five years ago.
Although we missed a clear opportunity for some Wolfie Puck testicular humor this week, the “delightfully unctuous” Michael Chiarello—himself a former Top Chef Master—is a worthy commenter on the cuisines of his homeland. He and Curtis agree that Antonia’s “spesh-ee-al-i-tee” (as Curtis’ Australian accent spits out each syllable) is overly salty, but Mike’s the one down under, with undercooked rice and under-seasoned meat yielding a clean sweep for Antonia, the first of the season.
NEXT: A quick quickfire