Celebrity chef Mario Batali hand-cut and stuffed (count ’em!) 2,960 pieces of pasta for Tuesday night’s state dinner on the White House’s South Lawn. Diners who have eaten at his esteemed Babbo in New York may have already sampled the first course, sweet potato agnolotti in a wash of sage butter. Reporters attending Monday’s preview for the event, honoring Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy, were treated to (rare) samples of the dish by no less than the ponytailed, Croc-wearing chef himself, who said he had been at the White House since 6:30 that morning.
The silky pasta, with a whisper of nutmeg in the filling and a dusting of tangy Monterey Jack cheese from Sonoma, made media types wish they could hang around for dinner.
Pitching in to help the headliner prepare for the 400 or so guests expected on Tuesday were White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford and four members of Batali’s restaurant team. Also, the maestro cracked, “I’ve got about 12 Navy SEALs helping me out, so I’m pretty sure we’ll be fine.” (In reality, the support team hailed from the Navy Mess.)
American and Italian flavors dovetail on the fetching hors d’oeuvres introduced by Comerford. They include roasted California figs capped with speck and herb pesto (using cinnamon basil from the White House garden), tiny crab-filled cannoli and wild mushrooms tucked into profiteroles.
The four-course dinner reprises some familiar themes. As has happened countless times before, beef will be featured as the entree, this time as a pinwheel of prime tenderloin pounded thin and rolled up with bresaola, fontina cheese, garlic and Japanese bread crumbs: braciole in Italian. A meatless version was also being offered. And as at four of the Obama administration’s previous 13 dinners (honoring the leaders of India, Mexico, Japan and China), a brand-name talent was recruited to orchestrate the food — a move that I’d suggest should become the norm. If showcasing the best of America is truly what the White House wants to do, it ought to tap into its deep bench of restaurant talent across the country.
Batali’s biggest challenge? Keeping the food warm en route from the White House kitchen to the guests on the South Lawn. To that end, the cooks plan to rely on hot boxes. The food, including a second-course salad of warm butternut squash and pecorino cheese from New York, also will have to be seasoned enough to compete with the outdoors, where flavors tend to dissipate. Hence the bold wines selected for the evening, including the 2014 East Bench by Ridge Vineyards from California with the entree, said the chef.
Continuing the fall harvest theme, White House executive pastry chef Susan Morrison is creating a green apple crostata set on thyme caramel sauce and crumbled toffee, alongside a scoop of buttermilk gelato. She is also making for every table a display of petits four, including bite-size pumpkin-cranberry tarts and tiramisu, presented on a platter with a raised tier of edible chocolate squirrels and cookie “leaves” in true fall colors. “Of course, we have to have a beehive,” representing White House honey making, said Morrison, pointing out a tiny chocolate replica on her display.
Batali was clearly thrilled to be cooking at the White House. “I’m proud to be here,” he said, praising Obama as his favorite president. “I’m proud to be an American.” Asked to rank the experience, he said, “Other than cooking on another planet? This is as big as it gets.”
The full menu:
Sweet Potato Agnolotti With Butter and Sage
Palmina Vermentino Santa Ynez 2015
Warm Butternut Squash Salad With Frisée and Pecorino di New York
Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese Napa 2012
Beef Braciole Pinwheel With Horseradish Gremolata and Broccoli Rabe
(A vegetarian version of this dish will be available)
Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel East Bench 2014
Green Apple Crostata With Thyme Caramel and Buttermilk Gelato
“Celebrating Autumn’s Harvest” Petits Four Display: Sweet Corn Crema and Blackberry Cup, Concord Grape Bittersweet Chocolate Leaf, Orange Fig Slice, Pumpkin Cranberry Tart, Tiramisu