The Voltaggio Brothers Rank Their Favorite Retro Foods - Exclusive

Bryan and Michael Voltaggio are cooking their way down memory lane. Far from butting heads — as in "Battle of the Brothers" — the celeb chefs' newest collab is the Las Vegas Boulevard establishment, Retro, which offers guests food nostalgia through a menu inspired by the '80s and '90s.

Nothing on that menu is exactly what it seems. Take, for example, the escargot: burgundy snails dredged in egg white, corn starch, and sesame are fried and glazed in a General Tso-style sauce. As Michael told Tasting Table, "You get that Chinese-takeout sort of nostalgic vibe, but you're eating escargot. And the funny joke in the restaurant is, 'We're getting people to try snails by dressing it up like General Tso's Chicken.' And people are really digging it." Most of the menu is in that way. They're dishes that, per Bryan, "we either experienced growing up as part of our dinner table reimagined or are dishes that we started cooking because we [began] in the late '90s and early '90s."

At Retro, the "Top Chef" stars began what they started in their teens when they were — yes, playing Nintendo and skateboarding — but also taking pre-packaged food items and experimenting with their kitchen curiosity by repurposing them. At Tasting Table, we sat down with the brothers to chase the inspiration behind Retro and listen while the Voltaggios considered which dishes and products were most fun for them to recreate nostalgically. Welcome to your DeLorean time machine, culinary style.

12. The Good Humor Truck's Creamiscle Pops

Good Humor ice cream trucks began calling kids like the Pied Piper of Hamelin as early as 1920. For Bryan Voltaggio, however, '80s summers meant delighting in $1 creamsicles. Forget Vizzy's limited edition orange and cream hard seltzers or the citrusy vanilla bean Frappuccino you can order off Starbucks' secret menu. The original orange sherbert pop with a vanilla cream center captured so many young hearts that it earned its very own national day (August 14, for the creamsicle admirers out there). According to the older Voltaggio brother, the dessert is in dire need of a comeback.

"I always ... ran after that truck for during the summer while we were skateboarding and out, we'd had a dollar in our pocket and [would] go get one," the "Top Chef" contestant remembered. Don't be surprised if you see it reinvented on the Voltaggios' Retro menu sometime in the near future. The elder Votaggio says, "Chasing down a Good Humor truck and recreating some of those dishes, I think, would be fun for our menu."

11. Mom's Jimmy Dean Sausage balls

James Bond's "Diamonds Are Forever" actor and Country music legend Jimmy Dean broke into the meat business in the 1970s. A decade later, when Bryan and Michael Voltaggios' mom made her own sausage ball recipe for her kids on the holidays, it was the music star's sausage tubes she grabbed off her supermarket shelves.

You could recreate them today if you want to. According to Michael, just mix together Jimmy Dean's sausage, Bisquick pancake mix, and shredded cheddar cheese before baking them "like meatballs." The younger Voltaggio brother told Tasting Table, "We only got it on the holidays, and we thought it was like the hardest dish to make ... She would put them in that little wicker basket, folded in with a paper napkin [that] kept them all warm and they floated around the room." Even today, the "Top Chef" Season 6 champion remembers the dish as "one of the best things I've ever had."

10. Green bean casseroles

Campbell's Soup Company bravely takes credit for the green bean casserole, claiming to have developed the recipe in the 1950s, back when casseroles were celebrated as innovative. By 1992, the New York Times lamented that the dish was such a common household staple that in "polite company," casseroles were "as ridiculed as they are easy to make and comforting to eat." It's 2023, and Bryan and Michael Voltaggio want casseroles to become avant-garde again. They remember green bean casseroles as a childhood Thanksgiving staple that, per Bryan, "Doesn't just have to live on the third Thursday of every November." 

The Retro restaurant founders dress up their casserole with a mushroom broth emulsified with brown butter — which is an easy way for you to elevate yours at home, too. Take it from Michael, who always has a supply of brown butter in his fridge, and will emulsify the nutty and flavorful fat into everything from salad dressings to mashed potatoes to "elevate" flavors. 

To make your own, Michaelƒ recommends heating a saute pan to "moderately hot," tossing in diced cold butter, and cooking it "until the milk solids start to sort of caramelize on the bottom." Then, start stirring constantly with a rubber spatula so the butter doesn't burn. Once your milk solids turn brown, pour the butter into a container, refrigerate until firm, and then dice it up for future use.

9. Frozen pizza rolls

True children of the '80s might have rented out a space in their heads to the Totino's frozen pizza jingle. For the Voltaggios, it's on their tastebuds. "Totino's Quite a Bite Better" will certainly ring a bell for Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, who grew up microwaving "flavors of pizza'" on bagel bites, Hot Pockets, and Totino's pizza roll form.

The celeb chef brothers were so taken with Totino's that they traced its origin to coal mining towns in Kentucky and West Virginia, where, per Michael, the pseudo-Italian dish became a breakfast food to "send the coal miners to work with something hardy at the start of their day." At Retro, pizza rolls come complete with pepperoni, mozzarella, Basque espelette pepper, fennel pollen, and olive oil on a freshly made and rolled brioche with a burrata "icing."

However, if you want to recreate a Totino's roll at home, don't shy away from using store-bought frozen puff pastries, says Michael. That kind of dough, per the chef, is so butter-filled that "it would be extremely difficult to dry that out." Layer your pre-made pastry dough with your preferred pizza toppings, roll it into a log, and cut them into "pinwheels" for a solid dose of '80s pizza nostalgia.

8. Shrimp cocktail

If Los Vegas culinary creatives gave the shrimp cocktail its star power in the '60s, by the '80s, the appetizer had become the leading lady of elegant events. "When I thought about fine dining as a kid, that was a dish that I associated with us going out and having a fancy dinner," Michael Voltaggio recalled. "If we were dipping cold poached shrimp into horseradish cocktail sauce, it was like, 'Okay, we're eating fancy food right now.'"

The Voltaggios add texture to their shrimp cocktails by topping the classic shrimp cocktail appetizer with prawn crackers fried to puffy perfection. The chefs also lean into spice, which makes pickled horseradish in the cocktail sauce non-negotiable. To elevate your shrimp cocktail further, Bryan suggests buying fresh horseradish root and micro-planing it over the top of the shrimp, as they do. Per the older Voltaggio brother, this small step ensures that "when you're dipping into it, you're getting the fresh element of the horseradish as well, which has a little bit more heat than the pickled, but [is] a much more refreshing flavor."

7. Deviled eggs

Culinary history buffs can trace the origin of the deviled eggs as far back as ancient Rome — but is there greater proof of the dish's retro star power than Martha Stewart's devotion to them? The cuisine queen of the '90s has not only proudly proclaimed that deviled eggs are "delicious," but she also has published well over 30 odes to the dish.  Deviled eggs earn a spot on Bryan and Michael Volttagio's favorite retro foods because, says Bryan, they were "synonymous with every backyard barbecue" and holiday get-togethers growing up.

To take your deviled eggs game to the next level, forget paprika — which Bryan says "muddles" the flavor — add caviar, smoked trout row, or salmon row. For a crunchy finish, the chef suggests rendered bacon and fresh chives. The texture-weary among you need not shirk from the dish, either. If an overly thick egg yolk-filling is your main devilled egg impediment, the Voltaggio brothers have a hack for you. 

To achieve optimal filling fluffiness, whip cream, crème fraîche, or mascarpone into stiff peaks before folding that into your traditional deviled egg filling. Pipe the mixture into your deviled egg from a pastry bag, and you'll create — per Michael — "a lighter, sort of mousse filling" for the eggs. To stabilize it more, consider adding cream cheese to the mix.

6. Layered dessert cups

You heard it first here. Bring back parfaits, J-pudding cups, and other layered desserts! "Now dessert is all about deconstructed this and deconstructed that, and it's a lot harder to get the perfect bite," Michael Voltaggio rued. Not so if you build a layered dessert at home. "It's a dessert hack that people are getting away from," the chef reflected. "I think it's one that shouldn't necessarily go away."

The Voltaggio brothers are particularly partial to cookies and cream — and have done homage to the flavor at Retro by re-imagining a dirt dessert recipe, the 1980s midwest phenomenon responsible for sugar highs nationwide, and, of course, at the Voltaggios' childhood house. "You would get a chocolate pudding on the bottom, and then you would have sort of gummy worms and chocolate cookie crumbs sprinkled over the top of it," Michael remembered fondly. The chef says you can make a more adult version by putting homemade chocolate-flavored pudding into a coffee cup, topping it with sweetened, whipped mascarpone and coffee-syrup-soaked ladyfingers. Voilà, you've achieved a "quick little tiramisu!"

5. Pot roast

As Crock Pots became household staples in the 1970s, — or like one 1975 advert tried to convince consumers, the "perfect" tool for "working women" — so too did cuts of meat for slow-cooking. Little wonder that slow-cooked pot roast is one of the dishes that Bryan Voltaggio fondly remembers his mom making for them as kids.

The Voltaggios say they elevate and accentuate each ingredient when making their own today. No need to braze beef cheeks for 48 hours and serve it with oxtail-infused demi-glace emulsified in pomodoro, a la Voltaggio, but do think about treating your aromatics as more than just sidekicks. 

"Put all the aromatics in that you normally would, but then add those aromatics back to the final presentation," Michael Voltaggio suggests to Tasting Table. "Normally, you would cook [pot roast] with onions, carrots, celery, beef stock. We still encourage you to do that, but then what if you were to cook more carrots and more onions and more potatoes on the side?" Those vegetables — per Voltaggio — should then become "the center of the plate with the meat itself." For maximum flavor, strain out some of your original aromatics and use the remaining sauce to re-glaze fresh carrots, onions, and potatoes.

4. Velveeta Shells & Cheese

Are you a Kraft or Velveeta mac and cheese person? If you're either, technically, you're both — at least if you became brand-loyal after 1927, when Kraft Foods acquired Velveeta Cheese Company. Kraft Mac & Cheese, for those who take the side of "whoever came first," began its quest to become the object of the United States mac and cheese daydreams as early as the Great Depression. Velveeta — aka Kraft in disguise — didn't hit dinner tables until 1984.

As '80s kids, Bryan and Michael Voltaggio are 100% pro-Velveeta. It was this boxed pasta that the younger Voltaggio brother remembers as special-occasion-only food. "Velveeta Shells & Cheese [were] like the fancier version," Michael recalled. "[We] were getting fried chicken or a ham in the middle of the table." Kraft, on the other hand? The blue box was for "quick throwaway meals," the chef told us. "It's like, all right, here's your Kraft macaroni and cheese. We'll put some hot dogs in it and call it a day."

3. Frozen pot pies

If pot pies were once Elizabethan delicacies fit for kings, by the time Bryan and Michael Voltaggio were teens, they'd become frozen dinner staples whose comforting flavors also proffered independence. "There was a lot of, as kids, 'dealer's choice' when we went to the store," Michael explained to Tasting Table. "There was almost that personalized experience of, 'I'm gonna get fancy and grab the chicken pot pie, and that's the one I'm gonna heat up for myself.'" 

As Michael recalls, pot pies awakened the brothers' culinary curiosity. "When we learned how to cook, it was those dishes that were very easy for us to start with because it was, 'Okay, I've had the frozen version. I wonder what it would be like if I made this from scratch?'"

At Retro, Bryan had the idea of turning chicken pot pie into croquetas de pollo, with hand-shredded chicken stewed in chicken broth, folded into a cracker crumb breading, and sat on top of a black truffle puree. Fresh truffles aren't necessary to accentuate your pot pie at home. Instead, Bryan suggests brushing your pot pie crust with truffle butter. Don't shy away from playing with the presentation, either. Why not — as Michael recommends — freeze pot pie filling in an ice tray cube to make your own "frozen food section?" When it's appetizer time, all you need to do is, per Michael, "pop those out, bread them, and fry them."

2. Caesar salads

What do famous chefs order at restaurants? When Bryan and Michael Voltaggio go out to eat, a Caesar salad is a mainstay whenever possible. "It's definitely something that I think we both share as a flavor profile," Bryan told Tasting Table. "A dish that's very comforting and a dish that we love is a simple Caesar salad." As the Voltaggios now know well, an Italian chef working in Tijuana, Mexico blessed the world with consistently popular salad as early as 1924. Prohibition-era Hollywood stars brought the desire for the dish back to the United States after traveling to Tijuana for cocktail hour.

At Retro, the Voltaggios add a Parmesan churro to the dish to play with texture and as a nod to the salad's nation of origin. Freshly fried churros are optional, but the brothers would strongly recommend you play with consistency when making a Ceasar salad at home. Think outside the crouton box for a salad or two, and try a coarse Panko bread-crumb topping instead. 

"Then you can sprinkle that through your salad for texture versus those big clunky croutons," Michael elaborated. "Visually, it's more appealing, and it's more savory and more texturally pleasing when you have these salty little garlicky bits of toasted bread throughout your whole salad versus large silver dollar-size croutons."

1. SpaghettiOs

It's not much of an exaggeration to claim that after SpaghettiOs hit the shelves in 1965, American childhood changed. Certainly, Bryan and Michael Voltaggios' did. It wasn't the product alone that evoked lip-licking for the celebrity chefs. It was the fact that the canned pasta burst with culinary potential. "It was almost like, 'What can I take a can of SpaghettiOs and turn it into?'" Michael Voltaggio explained to Tasting Table. "Can I mix a bunch of cheese into it and a little bit of heavy cream and put a crumb on top of it and bake it into like a hot bubbly casserole?"

At Retro, the Voltaggios' have done homage to the dish with fresh pasta topped by "obnoxiously" large meatballs made of Wagyu, pork and veal, and arrabbiata sauce emulsified in brown butter. Whether you're going big or staying simple, the concept is the same: SpaghhetiOs are a great entry point into experimenting with food. Try mixing in pepperoni and mushrooms. Add Parmesan Reggiano and emulsified butter to the canned product for added flavor. As the younger Voltaggio brother affirmed, "That's why that particular dish is a fun one to play with; there's a plethora of things that you can pull from, that you can evolve that dish if you're taking it right out of the box."