Fabio Viviani won my heart during the first episode of this season's Top Chef. Each week, besides turning out some great looking Italian dishes (often underrated by the judges), Fabio showed more of his wit, personality, and delightful "Italianess". Every week, there was a memorable quote, endearing him to us, almost as if he were a friend. When it came down to the last four "cheftestants" in New Orleans, and Fabio left the show, I cried! He may have left before the finale, but he certainly didn't leave Palmabella's radar! There was no doubt he would be voted "Fan Favorite", even without my 20 votes!
Yes, I joined Facebook and became Fabio's "friend". He was kind enough to answer a direct inquiry about a possible Slow Travel GTG, thanking me for my support. I was happier than a pig in polenta! Then I learned he was hosting a "Fan Favorite Appreciation Party" at his Moorepark restaurant, Cafe Firenze. What is a three hour drive for a friend? I immediately made a reservation, booked a hotel, and invited friends to join us for dinner and the party!
Brad and I arrived early in the afternoon, and did a "drive-by", so we knew exactly where the restaurant was.
We picked up Marcia and David, and arrived shortly after 7 PM for a glass of wine at the bar before dinner. Upon entering, we were transported to Florence, with gorgeous carved wood ceilings and crystal chandeliers from Italy. There were Tuscan colors, stone walls and arches, luscious velvet drapes, and arched windows. Large leather furniture outside the front doors offer a relaxing place to wait or sip your cocktail.
Immediately, the "Fabio sightings" began, as he walked through the crowded bar and dining rooms, stopping to greet regulars, and graciously say hello to friends. I was well-behaved, and kept my camera in my purse, sipping a Pinot Grigio from the terrific list of Italian wines and cocktails on the martini bar menu.
Krista and Steve arrived at 8PM and we were seated in the adjoining dining room. We met Jennifer, perhaps the best waitress in California, and our new best friend! We let her know we were there for the "long haul" (dinner and the party), and that we were planning on taking our time. She was lovely and entertaining, sharing a lot about Fabio's endless energy and dedication, his hard work, and the success of the restaurant. Jennifer spent three months in Italy visiting Fabio's family and friends. She even taught us how to cut the foil and attach the wine cork to the bottle.
We were able to order course by course. We started by sharing two appetizers for the table: fried calamari and tempura zucchini, and bruschette with toppings of wild mushrooms, artichoke and cheese, and roasted zucchini and shrimp.
Fabio was busy in the kitchen, but Jennifer promised an introduction when the dinner rush was over.
We moved on the the second course. For me, the true test of any Italian restaurant is the pasta. Brad and I each ordered a pasta dish while the rest of our table began with absolutely luscious looking salads.
Here is Krista's gorgeous caprese:
Brad had the evening's pasta special: caramelized onions, brussel sprouts and pancetta, tossed with fresh linguini. SPECTACULAR!
I had Tortellacci di Zucca: exquisite pasta, a perfectly blended, slightly sweet butternut squash and ricotta filling in a light sage and cream butter sauce, with shaved parmesan and black pepper. It is a taste memory I will not forget. Oh I hope this is in the new Cafe Firenze cookbook coming out next month!
It was now almost 10. They were still seating new groups for dinner. Fabio was again making rounds in the restaurant. Hoards of beautiful young woman flocked behind him. Families asked for photos, everyone wanted his time and attention. We were patient, and watched as he graciously gave each guest their personal attention. Finally, it was our turn! Jennifer spotted us, and was ready to introduce us, when an older couple just in front of me took FOREVER to pose him for a digital photo. Fabio was as patient as a saint. I walked up and said, "Che piacere". I handed him a bag of homemade taralli.
Every muscle in his face relaxed, and he lit up like I had given him the keys to a new Ferrari. He said, "Oh my God! You do not KNOW how much I love taralli! You HAVE TO send me the recipe!" He said, "They will be gone in an hour!" Three cameras, captured the moment (Krista, Marcia, and Jennifer with mine!)
Here, Fabio is talking to Krista about Edible Santa Barbara, her new magazine.
Wow, a kiss, and a group shot to boot! What a gracious guy! We were happy campers, and after I invited Fabio to drop his mom off at "Casa Palmabella" for a visit, we returned to our table for the next course.
For our entrees, Brad enjoyed the cioppino.
I thought I would try the special pistachio crusted grouper, but it was so popular, they ran out, so I tried the homemade Italian salsiccia. YUM! Just spicy, just right!
Steve's penne arrabbiata looked great.
David's tagliata di filetto had me drooling.
After dinner, we finished the second bottle of wine, and lingered over coffee of all types.
Fabio's food exceeded all of our expectations. He has earned the respect of his fellow chefs and pleased customers! Will we return? You BET! Brad would like to eat his way through the pastas, and I think we may have to try, well, EVERYTHING on the menu. The food, the excellent service, and the bonus of a charming executive chef makes Cafe Firenze a winner!
It was ten minutes before midnight. I had brought three 8x10 color photos I printed of Fabio, hoping for autographs as party favors for the ladies. We forgot to bring a felt pen, so my patient "Brad'll Do It" husband, went off in search of a Sharpie. We wondered when he didn't come right back from the Albertsons in the same shopping center. It was closed, but he took the car and found a 24 hour Ralphs, returning with not one, but two Sharpies! We gave the three photos, a pen, and our names written on paper to Jennifer to see what she could do. She returned with our photos, and Fabio's interpretation of the message. He wrote ALL of our names on EACH photo. It was a perfect souvenir of our evening. Here are two of my favorite guys:
Fabio thanked everyone for coming, and for supporting him. There was a Top Chef jacket tossed out to the crowd like a bridal bouquet. I HAD it, but a young man in front of me was stronger, and wrenched it out of my hand, giving it to his girlfriend. I was too polite to take him down! There will be a drawing on Monday for additional prizes, so check out the restaurant's website to see if I win!
It was truly a wonderful evening with friends. Fabio has a lot of new ventures coming up: new restaurants, new cookbooks, promotional tours for several products and his project http://kidshealthcafe.com. What a joy to see that he is as genuine and adorable as he appears to be on TV.