“Growing up, my family wasn’t a big influence in food, because we had no money to buy it,” says Fabio Viviani, the onetime Top Chef star and restaurateur. He only learned about the finer side of the food world through his years working in the restaurant industry. Kevin Bludso, owner of two of the best barbecue restaurants in the Los Angeles area, who grew up in Compton, Calif., didn’t come from great means either.
That appears to be where any similarities between the stars of this first episode in our Served series end. In the kitchen, their approaches couldn’t be more dissimilar: Viviani waves around sprigs of fresh herbs; Bludso insists on using ketchup instead of fresh tomatoes in an Italianate version of barbecue sauce.
“I rub this grass into my granny’s rub?” Bludso asks when presented with chopped fresh rosemary and thyme to season the ribs the pair cook together. This could have been a culinary disaster.
But as with their backgrounds, there’s common ground in their cooking traditions too. The flavors may be different, sure, but many of the ideas are nearly identical. When you get past the initial sense that this Italian guy you know from reality TV and this African American barbecue master couldn’t be more different, the commonalities start to appear.
In Italy, they call it cucina povera—poor, or peasant, cooking. It’s the pot of tomato sauce flavored with a hunk or two of cheap, tough meat, or a bit of ground beef turned into a full meal by lengthening with bread crumbs and making meatballs. Sticky-finger barbecue cooking may seem a world away, and while you’re more likely to find ketchup instead of fresh tomatoes in the sauce at a rib joint, there’s a lot of similarity. I mean, there’s a reason some are pushing collard greens on lovers of kale. And that ham hock that’s tucked into the greens pot? It’s the same thrifty, delicious principle that’s at work in most every nonna’s meaty Sunday sauce.
Like the shared love of food that allows the dueling restaurants from The Hundred-Foot Journey to make peace, cooking bridges a cultural divide here—and it’s something that happens around us all the time. The cooking, and understanding, that happens between cultures is what we’ll be exploring throughout the Plated series, considering everything from the humble roots of today’s hippest (and most expensive) culinary trend, farm-to-table, to the kosher taco joint that’s doing brisk business in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.
Tuscan-Style Texas Ribs
For the sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup white onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons rosemary, chopped fine (stems reserved)
2 tablespoons oregano, chopped fine
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire
1½ cups ketchup
¼ cup balsamic glaze
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon chile powder
Salt and pepper to taste
For the rub:
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
2 tablespoons granulated onion
2 teaspoons seasoned salt
2 teaspoons coarsely cracked black pepper
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, picked
2 tablespoons dried basil
For the ribs:
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 racks pork ribs
1 cup prepared rub
Make the sauce: In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Sauté onions and garlic until translucent, 3–5 minutes. Add rosemary, rosemary stems, and oregano, stirring to incorporate. Stir in remaining ingredients, bring mixture to a boil over high heat, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 20–30 minutes, until thickened. Remove the rosemary stems and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Make the rub: Stir all of the ingredients together in a small bowl until well incorporated.
Make the ribs: Sprinkle the red wine vinegar over the ribs, making sure to douse both sides of each rack. Season the ribs heavily with the rub, cover, and allow to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.
Before cooking, allow ribs to come to room temperature, 30 minutes to an hour. Wrap each rack individually in foil, place on a cookie sheet, and bake until tender, approximately 2 to 3 hours. Once tender, remove foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes, allowing the “bark” to form on the ribs.
Cut the ribs between the bones into single-rib portions, and serve with the prepared sauce.