Chef Robbie Felice has plenty of plaudits. At age 29, he owns two successful and critically acclaimed restaurants—Viaggio in Wayne and Osteria Crescendo in Westwood. Both are on NJM’s list of Top 30 restaurants in the state. Recently he was tapped to compete in the ninth annual Barilla Pasta World Championship. He will be one of eight chefs competing in the USA qualifier at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, April 16 through 19. The top 20 contestants around the world will advance to the Pasta World Championship finals in Italy this October.
Felice is already tweaking—and showcasing at his restaurants—the pasta dishes he’s thinking of making in the Pebble Beach qualifier. You’ll find them in his daily specials list. Normally, Felice doesn’t use commercial pasta. He has two highly skilled, full-time pasta makers, Joyann Demont and Lisa Britting, one at each of his restaurants. He also considers himself camera shy. Nonetheless, he’s all in.
Table Hopping: How did you find out you were in the competition?
Robbie Felice: It was kind of weird, the way the whole thing happened. I had a friend who asked me something like, “Hey, would you ever be interested in competing in a pasta competition?” I usually don’t say yes to competitions, but if it’s pasta, why not? That was probably six months ago. Then recently I was [contacted by] a woman with Barilla, and she explained that they scout out who they feel are the best pasta cooks in America, and eventually narrow it down to eight.
TH: Why yes to a pasta competition?
RF: When you hear “competition,” what comes to mind is Food Network and “Chopped.” Truth is, a couple years back, just after opening Viaggio, I tried out for “Top Chef” and made it all the way to the last round before they pick [the ones who will become] contestants. They flew me to L.A. to meet Bravo executives. They called me that night, and I thought I had it in the bag, but they were like, ‘Honestly, you’re just a little too young. Try out again next year!’
It’s not that it left a bad taste in my mouth for Bravo, specifically. I just realized I don’t need to go on TV to prove myself or make it as a chef. So far, I’ve never said yes to a competition. I get calls from “Chopped,” from TV shows, all the time, and I always say no. But when they reached out for Barilla, I was skeptical, but I was also like, “Huh. Tell me more.”
TH: What sold you?
RF: It’s the opening ceremony of the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival. They actually kicked it off at the South Beach Food and Wine Festival with last year’s winners. A lot of very important people in our industry are involved. I spoke to this person from Barilla for a few hours, getting all the information. By the end I was like, “Jesus Christ, I have to take this!” You’re put in front of people you really want to get noticed by. And being from New Jersey and owning restaurants in New Jersey, I mean, Food & Wine doesn’t care what we [in Jersey] do so much. Bon Appetit doesn’t care what we do. Eater doesn’t care what we do. We’re always in the shadow of New York. But taking this is going to get the state and also my restaurants some recognition.
TH: How do you feel about using a premade, dried commercial pasta?
RF: I honestly think that using these hard pastas, and not having the art form of making pasta yourself, makes it so much harder. You don’t have that love of making homemade pasta, so a lot more work and love and passion have to go into the sauce and into plating. And here I have a little bit of passionate backstory, since we’re competing in California, and I’ve been trying to move there for eight years now. So I’ll put so much love into the ingredients from California.
TH: What do you know about the pasta itself?
RF: I did a lot of talking to the woman at Barilla. We’ll be using this line called Collezione, their artisanal line. Of course, having to cook hard pasta, yes, definitely hurts my heart. But it’s nice to know it’s an artisanal brand. There are seven or eight shapes you can choose from, and you can do any recipe you want.
TH: You’ll be serving your practice dishes. Will they be identified as such?
RF: You’ll have to come in and listen to the specials. I’m a thousand percent sure they’ll be on there fairly soon. We run daily specials and we’ll probably get a million different versions of the dish served over the next month and a half. Of course, when the server’s explaining to you that a dish isn’t made with house-made pasta, that’s a dead giveaway.
Actually, we want to do an event—at Viaggio we have a Chef’s Bar where me and my chefs cook for you for the night. The idea is, we’ll sell those five seats and diners will get the dish I’m going to be doing at the event. And since I have to be able to do it, in competition, at the event, in an hour, the diners at the Chef’s Bar will be able to time me. I’ll plate it and run it out and give it to them as if they were judges.
TH: How can people find out when those five seats are available?
RF: Most of our stuff goes up on Instagram, and both my restaurants have an email list. Any event we do, we always email out. We’re constantly blasting events a little earlier on Instagram, as opposed to Facebook. Most sell out pretty quick.
TH: You’re not competing alone, correct?
RF: One of my best friends, the kid who got me to go to culinary school, AJ Capella [executive chef of Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown, an NJM Top 30], will be my sous chef, basically. We’re gonna have a blast.
TH: Sounds like you’re more excited than nervous.
RF: Absolutely! I get to cook with California produce and seafood, or whatever it may be, on a stage at Pebble Beach, for Food & Wine magazine. I mean, it’s like walking down the red carpet.
Felice is excited about a sweepstakes Barilla is holding to send one social media-savvy pasta lover to the competition. “They’re offering a really cool thing,” he says. “If you go on the website and pick which chef is your favorite, post their picture and hashtag #PastaWorldChampionship and #Sweepstakes, you’re entered to win all-inclusive free travel to Pebble Beach and watch the competition. I even told my staff at both my restaurants, ‘If one of you guys win this, I have to give you the day off.’”
Official rules to enter can be found here.Click here to leave a comment