Top Chef Duels recap: 'Mike Isabella vs. Antonia Lofaso'

Two all-star chefs compete family style.
Ep. 03 | Aired Aug 20, 2014

DUELING COUSINS Antonia Lofaso and Mike Isabella face off in a three-course family-style dinner.

Nicole Wilder/Bravo

It's funny—Mike's wife, Stacy, would wear metallic eye shadow and cook fantastic pasta dough and Antonia's brother, Dominick, would be as difficult but trustworthy with a mandolin. Both are perfect sous chefs, though I'm as bummed as Antonia's daughter is that we don't get to watch her sharpen her knives after watching her grow up over the past six years. And Mike's mom is surely an inspiration to her son, but his cuisine has always been about moving past his heritage, drawing upon the past but not awash in it like Antonia and her lucky chicken.

As the plates come to the table, Michael Chiarello's words from early on in the competition—"the classic versus the reinvent"—ring true. Despite the sexy slo-mo seafood baste-o-vision, Antonia's fra diavolo with black cod, lobster, cockles, and andouille in a spiced tomato seafood broth is comfortable; Mike's charred braised octopus with artichoke puree, a raw artichoke salad, and giardiniera is inventive.

Time proves this to be another editing-room misdirection: Mike's apparent lead seems to grow even more with his surf and turf carbonara. His wife's fresh bucatini earns the most praise, though uni and duck egg sounds as "epic" as Michael Chiarello says it is. Antonia takes a calculated step to the borders of her culinary comfort zone with egg yolk ravioli—it's certainly an interesting way to marry the flavors of the carbonara as the diners cut the pasta and the yolk oozes out onto her bacon, spring peas, and hazelnuts in a much-debated brown butter sauce.

It comes as no surprise that the pasta dishes sing—it's all in the family, after all. But as we've seen far too often on Top Chef, dessert proves to cost the risk taker in Mike as Antonia's decidedly safe choice—cannoli crème, pistachio ice cream, and warm cherries—outshines his ballsy basil panna cotta with pine nuts, chocolate streusel, and strawberries. No matter how aged his balsamic is, the old school can't save his unset panna cotta, and the Old World wins out in spite of the dog's tricks.

Despite Michael Chiarello's clever cautions about trying to top your grandmother's lasagna, Antonia's steadfast devotion to her culinary lane (and lineage) produces a somewhat surprising victory. As the tears stream down her face at judges' table for the umpteenth time, it's another tradition in an episode full of them.

Follow me on Twitter: @johnvilanova

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