Two all-star chefs compete family style.

By John Vilanova
Updated August 21, 2014 at 05:21 AM EDT
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Top Chef Duels
Credit: Nicole Wilder/Bravo
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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 quickfireWith a handful of restaurants between them now, both chefs seem to have been Aspirino-ed, with the knives out of their hands and cameras in front of their faces, which makes Mike’s cheekier contest—a teasing speed test that he knows he’s more equipped to win—a fun callback. As Curtis narrates the chefs cutting into still-quivering prawns, it’s a nice return to a quickfire favorite that has always held an important place in the journey to the finale: For me, the once-a-season speed quickfires have always separated the favorites from the pack as Tom scrutinizes one perfectly manicured artichoke or Frenched rack of lamb at a time.

Though Antonia’s en place pretty quickly, Mike gets first choice, which forces her to work with mackerel and Mike to get prawns for himself. This week’s Top Chef was almost educational at times—and I mean that in all the best possible ways. Hearing Antonia’s justification for cooking a tough protein whole (taking her own stab at Mike’s prep-based challenge) or having Gail explain how Mike’s Mediterranean balls allowed sweet ingredients like cardamom and cinnamon to function in a savory style was the first of many times when the show taught me something new. It might seem obvious that cooking mackerel whole can make it easy to prevent overcooking, but this week’s panel offered criticism in a way that reflects why the show’s non-chef judges have always been more than merely professional eaters.

Antonia’s whole-grilled mackerel with spiced yogurt, mint, capers, lemon, Fresno chiles, and, of course, fennel seems to impress the judges, but Mike’s spicy scampi soup with grilled oysters and clams plus chive and lemon yogurt really wows the Calabrese in Chiarello. While Curtis picks Antonia and offers another strange criticism—how can something have too much flavor to be a soup?—the aggressive complexity of Mike’s meal (which reminded me of the comments he earned on All-Stars) is enough for Gail and Michael to award him his due.

And for all the complaining I did about the emphasis on the cousins theme, what we all really wanted was a family style cook-off, right? What’s even better is that the three courses—an heirloom family favorite, an eggy carbonara, and a re-envisioned dessert—seem to play to the chefs’ relative strengths evenly. With la famiglia at the heart of the episode, it was fitting to sit the respective sides of the clan down for dinner, but adding the pick-your-own-sous-chef wrinkle was an appropriately endearing touch in a feel-good episode.

NEXT: Family styleIt’s funny—Mike’s wife, Stacy, would wear metallic eye shadow and cook fantastic pasta dough and Antonia’s brother, Dominick, would be as difficult but trustworthy with a mandolin. Both are perfect sous chefs, though I’m as bummed as Antonia’s daughter is that we don’t get to watch her sharpen her knives after watching her grow up over the past six years. And Mike’s mom is surely an inspiration to her son, but his cuisine has always been about moving past his heritage, drawing upon the past but not awash in it like Antonia and her lucky chicken.

As the plates come to the table, Michael Chiarello’s words from early on in the competition—”the classic versus the reinvent”—ring true. Despite the sexy slo-mo seafood baste-o-vision, Antonia’s fra diavolo with black cod, lobster, cockles, and andouille in a spiced tomato seafood broth is comfortable; Mike’s charred braised octopus with artichoke puree, a raw artichoke salad, and giardiniera is inventive.

Time proves this to be another editing-room misdirection: Mike’s apparent lead seems to grow even more with his surf and turf carbonara. His wife’s fresh bucatini earns the most praise, though uni and duck egg sounds as “epic” as Michael Chiarello says it is. Antonia takes a calculated step to the borders of her culinary comfort zone with egg yolk ravioli—it’s certainly an interesting way to marry the flavors of the carbonara as the diners cut the pasta and the yolk oozes out onto her bacon, spring peas, and hazelnuts in a much-debated brown butter sauce.

It comes as no surprise that the pasta dishes sing—it’s all in the family, after all. But as we’ve seen far too often on Top Chef, dessert proves to cost the risk taker in Mike as Antonia’s decidedly safe choice—cannoli crème, pistachio ice cream, and warm cherries—outshines his ballsy basil panna cotta with pine nuts, chocolate streusel, and strawberries. No matter how aged his balsamic is, the old school can’t save his unset panna cotta, and the Old World wins out in spite of the dog’s tricks.

Despite Michael Chiarello’s clever cautions about trying to top your grandmother’s lasagna, Antonia’s steadfast devotion to her culinary lane (and lineage) produces a somewhat surprising victory. As the tears stream down her face at judges’ table for the umpteenth time, it’s another tradition in an episode full of them.

Follow me on Twitter: @johnvilanova

Episode Recaps

Top Chef Duels

Celebrity chefs Curtis Stone and Gail Simmons decide the best chef as two past contestants go head-to-head in each episode.
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