John’s National Voice-Over Debut Or, Our Experience with Villari’s and Food Network

If you watched last night’s pilot episode of Restaurant Impossible, you might have heard a familiar voice in the last two minutes talking about the newly unveiled Villari’s Restaurant as “a notch above”. Yes, that was John. I, on the other hand, might have been at home in my sweats.

Oh, well- so our television debut wasn’t what we had hoped. In fact, it ended up on the cutting room floor. We were prepared for that possibility. However, we’re still happy to have this nifty little website so we can tell you, as Paul Harvey would have it, “the rest of the story.”

Even though we didn’t get a mention in the final cut, a PA from Food Network actually called together a table of “food critics”, consisting of John and I, Drew Lazor of City Paper (of Philly) and Beverly Bretlmann, writing for South Jersey Magazine.  It appeared the original intention was to showcase critics loving the food as part of the ending, perhaps. And so, after enjoying a glass of wine outside and chatting with the poor, frazzled, but friendly production staff (who mentioned that they hadn’t slept in two days) we were the first to be herded in amidst the bright lights and cameras to a special table. We were immediately greeted by our friendly server (yes, one of the original waitstaff you saw in the beginning) where a short menu of choices was presented to us.

As we chatted with Beverly and Drew (who were funny and wonderful dinner companions, by the way), the  first thing to hit the table was garlic bread. This was to be one of the very best things the whole evening. That’s not to say that the rest of the dinner was a waste- but the garlic bread was THAT GOOD. In fact, I think I mentioned that it was better than my sister’s, if that’s possible: tons of butter and fresh garlic, with just the right amount of Parmesan dotting the top. Marc Summers, the producer of the whole shebang, stopped by to say hi, donning a flannel shirt, a cup of joe in his hand, and tired-looking eyes. We felt just as bad  for him as the crew, and gave him some garlic bread. If I’d have known we’d be cut out, maybe I’d have saved the last bite for myself….

And then something happened that was just simply not fair. Paul Villari, the featured son and owner, came over to talk with us, along with his 9-year-old daughter. Came to talk to just us. The “critics”.  He told us about what a rough time it’s been, how thrilled and happy and nervous he is, and how he really hopes we have a great time. No pressure or anything, but if you don’t like what you’re eating, my daughter won’t be going to college…

Suddenly, the camera crew and PA’s descended upon our table. Good Lord, we really were going to be filmed…and just as quickly, the appetizers appeared. There was much fuss and fanfare by our server over the calamari “steak”. The Italian side of my family ran a neighborhood fish store, and I never once remembered hearing about a calamari steak. Isn’t it just a tube of protein? What came to the table was a plate of the familiar breaded and deep fried protein, cut into chunks instead of rings. Although the calamari itself was tender and perfectly done, the breading was heavy, and a few times, gobs of uncooked batter hit my mouth. The dipping sauces were an aioli (pleasant, lemony and creamy) and what I call good old “gravy” (tomato sauce, nicely done).  Next was the Clams Casino that was mentioned in the show, which was every bit as delicious as it looked. The clams were tender (and whole, not chopped to my delight), and the generally moist stuffing with pancetta was slightly crisped on the top- a perfect execution of the classic . Our server then announced that Chef Robert Irvine had added a special appetizer just for us; it was a twist on the old-school Italian restaurant staple, “Francese”- Oysters Francese. A large battered oyster (which John admittedly found “unwieldy”), sauteed with what tasted like butter and lemon, was topped with a “cocktail froth” (a froth version of cocktail sauce) and lemon zest. I really enjoyed this, whether it was awkward to eat or not.

As I ate and made notes, I noticed a camera over my shoulder, starting to close up on and shoot my notes- and I felt like someone was rooting through my underwear drawer. I tried, with a joking manner, to gently shoo the camera guy on to something else,  but it was subtly inferred to me that it was necessary, and that as long as I was at this table, that they owned that notebook, as it made a good shot…so I stopped taking notes for the moment. We were then asked, one by one, what we thought of our meal so far. That’s when John made his  “top notch” comment -which was referring to his opinion of the appetizers, not the restaurant in general. I was then asked to give my impression on the meal so far, which I gladly did. Then I was asked, would  I come back to eat here on a regular basis? As I really didn’t know, since I’d only had the appetizers so far, I said, “Let’s see what the dinner brings. ” The interviewer pressed me, asking  “based on what you’ve had so far, would you come back? ”  It’s obvious they had their storyline in place before they began shooting, and were prompting us to fit that story. Ahh, television.

Unfortunately, the meal was to peak here. We were served a choice of soups: the much-heralded She Crab Soup and an Italian Wedding Soup.  Although the She Crab was heavily featured in the show and was generally tasty, it was way too creamy and thick, and had one too many pieces of crab cartilage floating in it. The Italian Wedding Soup had promise with those cute little meatballs floating in it, but the greens were still overly crisp, as if they were added at the last second and didn’t blend with the soup. It was also incredibly and unpleasantly salty.

Not everyone was as well plied with food as we were at this point, however. As I looked behind me, there was a table with a very unhappy mom and dad and two hungry kids. Despite putting in their order almost an hour ago, no food (or waitstaff attention, for that matter) was forthcoming. I felt so bad, being a mom myself, that I offered to make up a plate of what we had for the kids-it wasn’t fair that they had to sit and watch us eat. They politely declined and a half an hour later, with still no food in sight, the annoyed family left (understandably), in a huff. I don’t think Villari’s made fans of them that night.

Once the mains arrived, it was apparent that the kitchen still had its kinks to work out.  The first thing I noticed when I received  my order,the Lamb with Risotto,  is that it had obviously been sitting a while. The sauce was congealed and lukewarm. The risotto had that signature creaminess, but was underdone (a few bites were downright pasty). The lamb did arrive medium-rare, and I was glad it wasn’t overcooked (I wasn’t asked how I wanted it done). The accompanying steamed asparagus was tender-crisp, but reflected what I thought about the whole dish- underseasoned and bland, as if not much thought had gone into it.  Another lackluster dish was the tuna with red cabbage and capers- the monotone color of the entire plate was a purplish grey, and although the tuna arrived rare, there wasn’t too much to say about it. When I tasted the Seafood Fra Diavolo, I was a little more impressed; the sauce had a fresh tomato taste and the seafood was fresh. For a “Fra Diavolo”, I’d like a little bit more spice to it, but it was tasty nonetheless. The real winner that we all wished we had ordered was the Gnocchi Bolognese. Sure it was heavy and rich, but oh-so-worth every gram of fat! The gnocchi tasted homemade, and the sauce was the rich meat-tomato-and-cream standard; yet it was masterfully balanced and even risked a bit of a pleasant kick with a bit of red pepper. Other than the garlic bread, it was the only dish I’d seriously consider worth coming back for.

Dessert was cute plates of  panna cotta, cannolis, and zeppoles. The panna cotta was the best of the bunch: a rich caramel-laced cream hiding chocolate marscapone underneath, delicious. The cannoli were respectable, as in they were crisp and it was obvious they were filled fresh;  the bit of fruit mixed in with the chocolate chips was a nice touch. The “zeppoles” did not remind me of any I’d ever had at an Italian feast (festival), as they were crunchy almost all the way through (instead of that heavenly crisp exterior giving way to a fluffy, moist cakey interior). Although it was interesting to serve them rolled in cinnamon sugar with fruit and chocolate dipping sauces, I kept hankering for the simple hot zeppoles, served fresh from the fryer in a paper bag with powdered sugar.

With that, our meal came to a close…not with a bang, but a whimper. The shooting crew was off in the bar capturing ambiance shots and interviews, and the waitstaff was desperately trying to serve meals and make sense of the chaotic kitchen. Dropped like hot potatoes, we all just looked at each other after a while and said, “Umm, I guess this is it, we should leave now?” As we were assembling our tips for the waitstaff (our meal was gratis, but you can’t stiff the folks who took care of you!), John and I noticed two ladies looking quizzically at two tiny little dishes that had been plunked down in front of them. I recognized them as the delicious Oysters Francese appetizers, and said to them, “Try it! It’s really good!”. They smiled and said, “What is it?” When I started to describe how good the oysters were they asked, “But is that chocolate sauce?’ and pointed to the “froth”. As I looked confused and started to explain what it was they added, “Our waiter brought this out to us for dessert, but he didn’t know what it was!” We all had a good laugh, and the ladies looked relieved as I informed them of the real desserts. I don’t think I’d go for oysters with chocolate sauce, either.

So, now that Robert Irvine and Marc Summers have created Villari’s  television happily-ever-after, can I say it’s worth going back? The reality of it is that, based upon my experiences that night, I really am just as clueless about Villari’s as before I walked in. The evening was fun and exciting, and the decor was great to look at-but I can’t help but wonder, who is cooking NOW? Is it still “Chef Christina”? Have they improved the quality of the main dishes? Has the waitstaff acclimated to the new menu? Can the kitchen handle a busy crowd better than they did that night? Unfortunately, the only epilogue offered by the show is that “Nine months later, Villari’s is still open.”

I guess what we need to keep in mind is that, in the world of TV reality shows there is only one kind of reality: the one created by the decisions of camera people, editors, and producers that design a story that will get ratings. As a food writer, my primary attention is on the food, and not so much the drama. If you’re like me, my happiest reality is the one where I’m getting a perfectly executed, wonderful meal that I’d be happy to pay for. Luckily for them and us, the demands for both should keep John and I- and Food Network- busy.


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