Giada De Laurentiis is sitting at a table in the private hospitality tent at Taste of Chicago, as a plume of smoke mixed with evaporated meat fat drifts over from the nearby Texas de Brazil stall. Wafting smells are a hazard of any food festival, especially Taste of Chicago, but she takes it in stride. We switch tables, and though she worries about the lingering aroma of charcoal and Brazilian sausage permanently staying with her all day, she’s still ready to give a cooking demo, sponsored by Bella Sera Wines, to a packed crowd at the Dominick’s Cooking Corner. This is the second year in a row she’s been a guest at Taste of Chicago, and we used the occasion to ask her about her favorite Chicago restaurants, and whether she had any tips for upstaging former festival guest, Mario Batali.
Seeing that we are at Taste of Chicago, what are your favorite festival foods?
Zeppole. They are Italian doughnuts, which are deep fried and can be filled with all kinds of things. They are usually round, and there is no hole like an American doughnut. You can fill them with anything, or leave them as is. For Iron Chef I filled them with a cranberry compote, but sometimes I like chocolate, pastry cream, or nut cream. Then they are usually tossed with cinnamon sugar, and, if you’re lucky, it’s dipped in chocolate.
Are there any restaurants you have to visit when you’re in Chicago?
I have been trying to go to Girl & The Goat, and I have still not been able to get there. So, that’s a must-try on my list. I hear that their green beans are phenomenal. I know it sounds weird, but somebody told me, “If you go, you gotta get the green beans.” So, that’s my mission. Do you have any suggestions of what to order?
Oh…roasted pig face. It sounds a little crazy, but it’s very beautiful.
Pig face is what you’re telling me.
Roasted pig face, yes.
When someone else asks me for a recommendation, I’m going to say that, and I’m just going to watch their facial expression. Lovely.
Any Italian restaurants in Chicago that you’ve particularly loved?
I haven’t really focused on Italian food — I know that sounds kind of strange. Because Chicago is so neighborhoody, and I heard that they have phenomenal Ethiopian food and unbelievable Mediterranean food, Italian hasn’t been the number one thing on my list. I have been trying to explore the new, different sort of things that are going on, which are not really Italian. It’s fun to sometimes just break out of that box a little bit, and try something different that I don’t normally get a chance to try.
What are you most excited about in Los Angeles right now?
I hear that Mario Batali is going to be doing something like his gourmet shop in New York, Eataly. He might be opening Eataly on our side, which I think will be an unbelievable experience for anyone in Los Angeles.
Speaking of Mario Batali, he was at Taste of Chicago last year. Are you going to do anything to upstage him?
Funny thing is he was here last year, and so was I, and somehow my demo was more exciting. But, anyway… No, I’m just teasing you. I don’t think I could ever upstate Mario Batali; I don’t even bother, frankly. Honestly, he’s sort of been a mentor to me for a long time. We’re similar and very different all in one. He’s a very gregarious big personality, and I would be very stupid to upstage a man like that. But I love him to death. He’s just a barrel of laughs. Talk about wine, he loves his wine.
One last thing, do you have a favorite hot weather beverage?
Sangria. I use Bella Sera Pinot Grigio, fresh peaches, raspberries, sometimes mango, and otherwise apricot. I kind of let all the fruit sit in there, and then, for a little effervescence, I add some sparkling water.