Rocco DiSpirito On All That's Right And Wrong With Italian American Cuisine - Exclusive Interview

Rocco DiSpirito knows Italian American cuisine. According to The New York Times, the famous chef owned a three-star restaurant, Union Pacific, before taking a 15-year hiatus from the restaurant business. Since his comeback in 2019, DiSpirito has made a whirlwind of appearances on the popular series "Guy's Ranch Kitchen" and "Tournament of Champions" and took home the trophy from "Guy's Grocery Games."

The television personality paid a visit to the Sun Wine & Food Fest, hosted by Mohegan Sun, where Tasting Table sat down with DiSpirito one on one. In our exclusive interview, the cookbook author described how to create the perfect Bloody Mary, cooking tips for seafood pasta, and how he feels about fast food chains trying out New York-style pizza. DiSpirito even shared his love for an iconic Italian American food — frittatas — and how he feels about pineapple on pizza. Just so we're clear, pineapple on pizza is never okay (hot honey for the win!). 

Bloody Marys with Rocco DiSpirito

You were recently on "Guy's Ranch Kitchen." You made a giant Bloody Mary. What seasonings or flavoring do you think takes a Bloody Mary from good to great?

[The way to take] a Bloody Mary [from] good to great would be all the seasoning. Don't forget celery salt — very important. Worcester sauce — Lea & Perrins Worcester sauce. A little Tabasco — also great. I think many, many garnishes make it fun. What I did on the show was mini cheeseburgers and a shrimp cocktail. 

You guys have seen these super-duper Bloody Marys. There's no reason to give up on those. They're really fun. The basics [are] horseradish, lemon juice, salt. Don't forget salt. People are starting to use MSG in cocktails. I like a little MSG. That's becoming a thing. For a Bloody Mary, it's perfect.

You mentioned you garnished it with a mini cheeseburger. I spoke to Guy Fieri last week about sliders, and he said that his favorite cut of meat was a chuck short rib, and the lean-to-fat ratio was 80/20. Do you agree?

I generally agree with Guy. I'm going to say that my ideal fat-to-lean is 25/75 — 75 lean, 25 fat. It can come from any cut, but chuck is a great cut. I like the short rib chuck mix as well. But generally, the burger meat is all the scraps. [You've] just got to make sure you weigh it out so you have a 70-ish-to-30, 75/25. I like mixing up a little aged meat in there too.

Rocco DiSpirito on Italian American cuisine

Is there a traditional Italian dish that you think we need more of in the U.S.?

A lot of authentic Italian food has finally made its way to the United States. It's simple. Isn't it great? If 1900 was the Mid[dle] Ages for Italian American food, we're in the golden era now. We've gone past the Italian American rejiggering of Italian food to make it Italian American using Italian American ingredients and techniques, to super-authentic Italian food with very purist chefs that came over in the '80s and '90s. 

Now, it's a big mashup of all those things. When you go to an Italian restaurant, you can get spaghetti carbonara, you can get vodka sauce, you can get spicy rigatoni vodka sauce, that kind of stuff, which is all a mashup. I think the spicy rigatoni world [is] here to stay and probably should be here to stay. The funny part about that is it's based on a classic French technique of melting onions in butter, so it's not even Italian at all, but it makes it taste great.

[Spicy rigatoni is] huge in New York right now. Like fettuccine alfredo, right? Not Italian.

Yeah. Not really Italian, although they make it in Italy now.

What is your favorite Italian egg dish?

Frittata. My favorite Italian egg dish is a frittata, without question. I grew up on frittatas. There was always a frittata on the counter. It's the kind of dish you can make and leave out for people. A frittata with anything in it is great. My favorite is potatoes, peppers, and parm.

Put canned clams in your pasta

What is the best way to incorporate something like canned seafood into pasta?

Lots of great canned seafood out there. Tinned seafood is making a huge — not comeback, because it's always been around, but people are starting to recognize how valuable it is to have super-fresh food tinned right next to the source. If you're getting it from Spain or Portugal or Italy, you're getting very high-quality stuff, and it's usually really inexpensive. [One] of the best things you can do is open a can [and] serve it on top of bread. There's a recipe in my new book called Tin Fish Feast. It's basically a bunch of tinned fish and lots of crostini.

Okay. Here's a great one. Clams. Most people don't want to mess with clams when they make linguine vongole. Canned clams are delicious. They're already seasoned; they have salt. So at the end of the cooking process, where you would normally add the cooked clams, you just add the canned clams in. No cheese. No cheese on linguine vongole.

Several pizza chains, like Pizza Hut and Papa John's, often try to copy a New York-style pizza. What do you think [is] the biggest mistake restaurants are making when trying to replicate a pie like that from the city?

The biggest mistake people make with pizza in general is that they don't have the water or the flour that [is] required to make pizza amazing. What makes New York pizza great and Naples pizza great is the air, the water, the flour. Acqua e farina are the two basic ingredients of pizza. If you're not using Italian flour, for example, and you don't have New York water, which has a lot of minerals in it, you're not going to get the same results.

I would say, stop trying to copy New York style, even though everyone loves New York style, and focus on what's good in your area. I guess for a national chain, they need to have a hook, though. New York style is the best by the slice.

Rocco DiSpirito's pizza thoughts

What's your go-to pizza spot in the U.S.?

Joe's in New York City. Una Pizza Napoletana, which is Anthony Mangieri's place — really, really good. If you can get in and get a pizza, it's pretty life-changing.

Beyond pineapple, do you have any recommendations for a sweet addition to pizza in general?

Beyond pineapple? So we're going to go on the assumption that pineapple's okay on pizza?

No, but yes.

All right. Under the assumption that pineapple ... If you're okay with pineapple, then I guess you're okay with anything on pizza. You probably can go with sweet peppers, other fruits like peaches, maybe even melon. If you balance it with spicy foods, that's how you make the sweet stuff work. I like pineapple ham as long as it's got Calabrian chili oil on it. Then I think it works really well.

I know hot honey is a big thing right now.

Hot honey's definitely a way to go as well. I like the Calabrian chili oil because it's not sweet. It gives you heat without all the sugar.

Do you have any other upcoming projects or anything else coming up?

I have a new book coming out in October called "Rocco at Home." It's my first collection of home recipes — really excited about that. I haven't done that ever in 14 books.

Keep up with Rocco DiSpirito's latest projects on his Instagram page. For more information about the Sun Wine & Food Fest, visit Mohegan Sun's website.

This interview has been edited for clarity.