Tampa’s own Cena chef Michael Buttacavoli beats Bobby Flay

Buttacavoli’s meatball parm sub wooed the judges of the popular Food Network show.
Michael Buttacavoli's meatball parm sandwich was the winning dish on Thursday's airing of "Beat Bobby Flay."
Michael Buttacavoli's meatball parm sandwich was the winning dish on Thursday's airing of "Beat Bobby Flay." [ Courtesy of Food Network ]
Published Feb. 5, 2021|Updated Feb. 10, 2021

TAMPA ― Don’t mess with his meatballs.

That was the gist of Thursday night’s wild episode of Beat Bobby Flay, where Cena executive chef Michael Buttacavoli took home a big win after defeating celebrity chef Bobby Flay on his own show.

The “Friday Night Bites” episode was taped back in 2019, but you wouldn’t know it based on the game day theme, which felt fitting given the proximity to Sunday’s Super Bowl 55.

Now in its 27th season, the popular Food Network show has garnered widespread appeal for its goofy, over-the-top antics and a premise hinged on beating celebrity chef and host Bobby Flay at his own game. Each episode features two chefs who are first pitted against each other in a speed round competition involving a secret ingredient. The winner then goes head-to-head with Flay to battle it out with a dish of the visiting chef’s choice.

Thursday’s competition first stacked Buttacavoli against New Jersey-based chef Scott McDonald in a lighting round cookoff where the secret ingredient Flay chose was mustard. With 20 minutes on the clock, both chefs seemed a little stumped at first, but quickly got to it.

Though judges Amanda Freitag and Sunny Anderson both seemed to like McDonald’s corn dog with mustard greens, Buttacavoli’s mustard and maple-glazed shrimp with bacon, Brussels sprouts and a mustard crepe ended up winning them over.

In the second, 45-minute round against Flay, Buttacavoli’s dish of choice was “his favorite game day food” — a meatball Parmesan sandwich.

“Sundays were a big family day for us,” Buttacavoli says on the show. “My grandmother always had a pot of sauce on with a lot of meatballs — just delicious.”

To start, Flay seemed confident he could take the win, telling guests he frequently makes mini meatball subs at home and that veal stock was the secret to his super moist pork and beef meatballs.

For his final dish, Buttacavoli’s meatballs featured a mix of ground beef, hot Italian sausage and spicy nduja salami and were coupled with mozzarella and fried basil on a toasted roll. Flay presented a meatball sandwich with a Parmesan pecorino sauce. Though a trio of judges found Buttacavoli’s sandwich could have used a little more cheese and said Flay’s bread was a little under toasted, in the end, their decision was unanimous: Buttacavoli beat Bobby Flay.

“A cut above,” judge Ed McFarland said. “The meat, the flavoring — made for a definite winner.”

More than 200 people came to Cena on Thursday night to cheer on the restaurant’s chef during the show’s airing.

“It was really humbling how many people showed up,” Buttacavoli said. “Getting that kind of experience doesn’t happen very happen often.”