Meet Food Network Star Jeff Mauro - aka The Sandwich King

If you've been keeping up with Food Network Star, then you've already noticed Chicago has the next star, Chef Jeff Mauro.  Jeff bested a great field of entertaining and talented chefs to win this amazing challenge.  He's a very likeable guy and relates to me in so many ways- he loves to cook, has a great sense of humor, is Italian-American and takes great pride in his heritage as well as the city of Chicago and its culture. 

Jeff has had an interest in food for most of his life starting in the home.  Family events and Sunday dinner were always reasons for relatives to get together and enjoy great Italian food & company.  Just after finishing college Jeff started a deli in Peoria, IL. before selling it and moving back to Chicago to begin his comedy career as Tony in Tony n' Tina's Wedding.  He decided to take the next step and moved to Los Angeles to star with The Groundlings while taking classes at the Kitchen Academy and working on a cooking show concept.  Jeff moved back to Chicago after 3 years to his current job and Food Network Star fame!  Recently I decided to contact him for an interview so we could find out more about this local success story:

WCWG: You are very passionate about the food you make.  When did your interest in food begin and how did it culminate into you becoming who you are today?

Jeff: It all began when I was a kid- there was food at Sunday dinner and family events.  It seemed like every time someone stubbed their toe, there was a party with Italian food!  Being surrounded by family and food, you learn to gain respect for both.  During Junior High I learned to control my food and pack everything separately- bread, cheese, deli meat, etc. and make my sandwiches at school.  As anal as I was about sandwiches back then I have the same food passion today.  And just because it’s a sandwich does not mean it's to be taken lightly- sandwiches can great.

WCWG: We know you're the Sandwich King and make some of the best sandwiches we've seen on TV.  What is your favorite sandwich and how do you make it?

Jeff: I just made Chicken vesuvio sandwich at my work kitchen- take a hinged sub roll, pan fry some chicken breast, top it with an au jus made with the pan drippings, white wine, lemon, garlic.  Top it with sharp provolone, sautéed peas, and house made giardiniera mayo.  I put vesuvio potatoes in the sandwich also and serve it with a side of jus for dunking.

WCWG: 3. What are some of your favorite places to go for a sandwich in Chicago and what do you normally get?

Jeff: It's gotta be Italian Beef- Johnny’s Beef (juicy, sweet & hot peppers).  I love Danny’s Deli in Melrose Park- their fried meatball sandwich which is more like loose tender patties served on ciabatta with a side giardineira & sauce.  And Jimmy’s Place in Forest Park makes a great breaded steak.  For subs I make a trip to Little Italy and Conte di Savoia- they do a special one with prosciutto, sopressata, fontina, fresh mozzarella and sundried tomatoes.

WCWG: I know almost all chefs know a thing or two about wine and food pairings.  What are some of your favorite wines to pair with sandwiches?

Jeff: I grew up around family making wine in the basement- that’s all we had.  Homemade wine paired with housemade charcuterie is a great pairing for me.

WCWG: Wine goes great with food, but so do many other beverages.  What is the Sandwich King's beverage of choice?

Jeff: There's nothing I like more than a cold Pellegrino- straight from the bottle.  Good beers too- strong IPAs, lagers, and pilsners like Peroni.

WCWG: Food Network Star is a very popular show and big with the Foodies.  There's lots of food fans in Chicago- how has the local response been to your new found fame?

Jeff: Great! People keep pointing me out and there's general street recognition.  They say,“Hey it’s the sandwich king!”.  The time is right for someone to represent the sandwich.

WCWG: We all think you're extremely witty and entertaining.  Do you still have a desire to get back into comedy?  Any chance we'll get to see you do stand up?

Jeff: Headline improve and 40 minute stand up has to be one of the hardest things to do- I get too nervous!  I used to hustle with it but was never comfortable- I've been in bands, commercials, etc.  You need the hardest discipline and to be somewhat synical, which makes you depressed. 

WCWG: All of us who watch the show can't get enough of Jeff Mauro.  Any designs on starting your own Chicago restaurant or sandwich shop?

Jeff: Sandwich shop- definitely in the future.  I've got to see what happens on the show and that’ll keep me busy 'til the end of the year.  For my own place, I must be involved- it’s my baby.  Sandwich king shacks across the country!

I want to thank Jeff for taking the time out for this and a big congratulations as well-

Birthday at Spacca Napoli

night1Another birthday is coming up and my wife decided to help me indulge in my heritage with a trip to Spacca Napoli.  They make pizza in the traditional Napoletano style: wheat flour, thin crust, with fresh ingredients cooked in a wood burning oven.  We heard so much about it from friends and reviews, so we took a drive up to try it out.

Almost everyone loves pizza, but you can never truly appreciate it until you have the best, which is made in its 190px-traditional_pizza_from_napoli1home- Napoli.  Very good pizza is made elsewhere, but it's at its best in southern Italy.  On a visit there, I asked "Why?".  Many did mention the wheat, but all said it was the water.  Only natural spring water is used to make the dough.  I will always remember the pizza there, with every establishment making the most perfect crust, amazing sauce, and fresh ingredients.  The picture to the right is of a typical pizza made in Napoli.

Now on to Spacca Napoli.  My wife and I walked in and were seated promptly.  Our server was peppy and announced the specials before retrieving a Peroni for me and some Prosecco for my wife.  Our appetizers were then brought to us- a Bufala Mozzarella salad with ripe red tomatoes and very large leaves of delicious basil drizzled with olive oil, and an Insalata di Mare- calamari, shrimp, and cuttlefish with chopped celery.  The dish was a bit flavorless and not quite as fresh as others I've had.  Our server pressed us about four times for our pizza order (it seems as though they are coached to "turn and burn" the tables), and we finally gave it after ordering a bottle of Cantina del Taburno "Fedelis" Aglianico.  Aglianico is the special red grape of southern Italy.  It can create big bodied, fruity, earthy, long lived tannic wines.  This one was satisfactory with ripe dark plum and espresso flavor accompanied by slightly grippy tannins, but with a medium minus length and finish.  They give small drinking cups with all wine, and while I believe this is taverna style, I also think if you order a bottle you should be given proper stemware. 

oven1Our pizza came out VERY fast- I believe in less than five minutes!  This usually does not bode well, and did not in this case.  The crust was soft and tasty, but had more than a few burn marks, which affected the flavor.  The middle was still a bit rare.  I attribute this to two factors: 1) Pizza not left in long enough, away from the flame, and 2) the sauce.  Tomato sauce should be rich, thick, and deep red.  This was not the case, as it was thin and not very flavorful.  Also, the small amount of basil used was thrown together instead of lovingly place atop the pizza.  Plus, the mushrooms atop my wifes pizza were definitely not quality.  They seemed to be drowned button mushrooms, while I would have used fresh cremini as an ingredient.

On to dessert.  We shared a tiramisu, which had a fluffy sweet mascarpone top over slightly over marinated savoiardi biscuits.  Our bill was brought to us before we could order coffee, but we did anyway.  Overall, we felt Spacca Napoli tries to rush you in for some pizza, and back out.  The dough is quite good, but the making of the pizza along with the ingredients make it fall far short of Napoletano style.  I love the wine list which is almost totally comprised of southern Italian wines.  Whites include Fiano, Greco di Tufo, and Falanghina, while reds of Primitivo, Aglianico, Nero d'Avola, and white and red Lacryma Christi are offered.  If you are in the neighborhood, try it out, but remember there are better options in Chicago.