Rocco's Dinner Party

He still may not quite be a Gordon Ramsay or Bobby Flay, but Rocco DiSpirito has been making plenty of moves to join the ranks of the modern celebrity chef. Starting back in 2003 on the hit NBC show The Restaurant, DiSpirito let reality TV cameras follow him as he and his investors attempted launching Rocco’s 22nd Street in Manhattan. Not so surprisingly, the restaurant didn’t work and was eventually engulfed in plenty of ratings-friendly drama before tanking entirely.

In the years since, DiSpirito has lent his delightfully Italian name and handsome mug to a bevy of food-related reality TV shows, including The Biggest Loser, Top Chef (of course) and, less logically, a stint on the 2008 season of Dancing with the Stars. All that tube time makes his newest venture with Bravo all the more likely, especially since he’s had time to mature his temper and, if you believe the tabloids, present his — ahem — best face for the network that’s all but mastered the competitive cooking show.

Rocco’s Dinner Party is a relatively simple idea topped with plenty of bells and whistles to distinguish it, too: Three experienced chefs arrive at Rocco’s chic New York loft, face an immediate quick fire-type challenge and are quickly trimmed down to only two contestants based on the outcome. Then comes the meat of the show, where the remaining two contestants cook for Rocco’s mystery dinner party guests, face-off for the $20,000 prize, and, of course, the bonus of having their culinary skills splashed all over Bravo TV.

In the premiere episode, Geoff, J.J. and Britt all must deliver their “signature dish” in 30 minutes or less for the first challenge, which promptly has sweet-seeming Britt packing her bags before Rocco has fully ingested the sub-par arctic char tartare she delivers. Rocco’s reasoning mostly has to do with the temperature of the pans in his snazzy kitchen as he noted, “It certainly didn’t impress me enough to see what you can do with the ovens on.” Yipes.

With Britt out of the way, J.J. and Geoff begin their face-off, also focusing in a surprising twist on the party planning aspect of the dinner. A meeting with event planner Jes (just the one “s”!) has them brainstorming décor ideas based on Rocco's pre-selected “speakeasy” theme, including everything from pinstriped linens to Harlem cotton clubs.

The festive party planning is only a slight distraction from the real focus of the show: what’s being delivered on the plate. That and the bizarre mish-mash of Rocco’s Bravo-curated “guests.” For this go-round, DiSpirito welcomes the lovely Bryan Batt of Mad Men, Forbes.com media critic Bill McCuddy, Broadway actress Christine Ebersole, Eat Out New York writer Kelly Choi, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire actor Michael Kenneth Williams and recent Top Chef Masters winner Marcus Samuelsson. Of course, there has to be a curveball or two thrown in for good measure and for this series kick-off, Rocco delivers one just moments after the two chefs delve into their first dishes: one guest is vegetarian and another can’t have pork or alcohol. Cue buzzkill for Geoff and his thematically appropriate plan to work alcohol into every dish.

Once the dining begins, it’s unfortunate that we don’t get to hear more from these assembled guests as Rocco’s opinions clearly hold more sway, thus far. While there’s the occasional note or joke from the guests, they’re largely relegated to background party chatter while Rocco threateningly saunters in and out of the kitchen to scare the bejesus out of his chefs with questions on their dishes and plating times. If you’re wondering how it feels, take J.J.’s quote for a spin: “My heart is coming out of my chest like a cartoon character.”

Meanwhile, in J.J.’s jazzy cotton club-themed room, Williams has a ball playing on the tiny harmonicas that serve as placeholders with each guest’s name etched on them. He also serves as one of the episode’s highlights when J.J.’s sumptuous-looking oxtail entrée has him grinning while picking it up with his hands to get the lingering meat off the bone.

The fact the six guests are required to have two sit-down dinner parties in a row is a bit of a shame only because one would guess the excitement over the dolled up settings fades just before one’s appetite. While they’re realistically only nibbling on bites of each dish, it’s hard to pretend they’re moving from one five-course dish to the next sit-down affair within minutes.

In the final moment, DiSpirito decides his winner based, apparently, on where his guests had a better time. It’s fuzzy as to what exactly that means but based on how much the host’s opinion drives the show overall, it’s likely we’re steered mostly by his taste buds, which lead to J.J.’s dinner party as winner.

And for a man who has appeared on reality TV shows focused everything from weight loss to mastering the samba, DiSpirito does hold his own on the show as the voice of authority. He could benefit from a smidge more comedic relief as the series progresses but his sternness plays much like Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio's in unnerving the anxious chefs and adding to the overall dish anticipation. In the meantime, his guest will provide the jokes, as when Williamson finally meets the winning chef post-win and, remembering his meat-in-hands move, pointedly jabs, “I embarrassed myself on TV! I had to pick up your oxtail!”

Stray observations:

  •  Could’ve done without that whole “sex on a plate” conversation between Geoff and J.J. right?
  •  Geoff’s sweet potato bisque in a shot glass looked amazing, as did his scallops served in their giant shells
  • Geoff’s room looked a little chintzy, no? With the toy cars and fake booze boxes?
  • Who knew “big ass scallops” was a culinary term!
  • Gahhh. Rare monkfish.
     
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