ST. PETERSBURG — She changed out of her cranberry-red shift dress and into crisp chef whites for her 4 p.m. cooking demonstration at the Mahaffey, one of the last events at the Nov. 15-17 food and wine festival called Enjoy Arts and Tastes St. Pete. Donatella Arpaia was one of nearly a dozen celebrity chefs to preside over demos, parties and tastings for the festival. As head judge on both Iron Chef America and Next Iron Chef, her reputation as a forceful and opinionated taskmaster preceded her.
Enlisting the assistance of audience members, she launched into a "naked gnocchi" recipe, not her justifiably famous meatballs because, "I'm not giving away my recipe, no way."
The gnocchi is a great do-ahead first-course recipe for Thanksgiving and all holiday entertaining, she said, because it can be made and frozen, going directly from the freezer to the boiling water and cooking within minutes.
One assistant was promptly sent packing for being too slow on the job of rolling out the ricotta dumpling dough, another swiftly taking his place as Arpaia educated the room.
"What's the trick to making perfect pasta that doesn't stick?" she asked, grimacing when folks yelled out "olive oil."
"No, olive oil in the water makes the sauce not stick to the pasta. The mistake people make is choking the pasta and not giving it room to dance," she explained poetically, adding that what's essential is starting with lots of cold water and lots of salt.
Expertly rolling long snakes of dough between floured hands, she said quality sheep's milk ricotta is important ("this is not a recipe for Polly-O"), as is using the Caciocavallo cheese, available at stores such as Mazzaro's. "This recipe should be done like this or don't do it at all," she intoned.
Because, as she says, "there must always be a reason for a garnish," the gnocchi in this rich, creamy dish are topped with bread crumbs "because I wanted to give a little crunch."
The chef who the New York Post named one of the "most powerful women" in Manhattan demurred about rumors that she's thinking about opening a St. Petersburg restaurant. In keeping with her Iron Chef judging persona, she ended her festival session by focusing on the plate, stressing the simplicity of the dish because she's a proponent of using only "ingredients that count."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.