Like most others during the COVID-19 pandemic, chef Tom Colicchio passed a lot of his quarantine in the kitchen.
"I spent a lot of time home with time on my hands," he tells Yahoo Life. "I noticed that when I was home cooking, a lot of what I was doing was more Italian-oriented than anything else."
So Colicchio, who owns several restaurants in Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles, decided to open his first Italian restaurant, Vallata, where he serves up dishes inspired by his New Jersey Italian-American upbringing.
"I'm Italian on both sides of my family ... growing up, the one tradition was every Sunday, we had Sunday gravy," he says, explaining his family's love of the hearty tomato-based sauce filled with Italian meats. "It was meatballs, sausage, braciole — usually cavatelli pasta and there was a salad or something. That was every Sunday."
Activate your audio and click below to explore Chef Tom Colicchio's NYC restaurant, Vallata.
Colicchio, who recently launched a line of pizza-themed non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as a way to connect the brick-and-mortar restaurant world with digital bonuses like menu specials, private events and messages from the chef, says a restaurant he visited as a child also helped inspire the Vallata menu.
"There was a restaurant called Spirito's, it just closed after being open probably a hundred years," he recalls. "It was a red-sauce Italian restaurant — the pizza was actually pretty good — and in the summer, we used to go there on Fridays."
"There was a bar area and then there was a restaurant area," he continues, "and when we were kids, we only had dinner in the bar because my father was from the neighborhood."
Later, when Colicchio was a freshman in high school, he learned the restaurant was larger than he imagined.
"After a basketball game, everybody's like, 'We're going to Spirito's,'" he says. "Now, I had never been there with friends, I had only been there with my family growing up. They're walking into the side entrance and I'm like, 'Where are you guys going?' They said they were going to the restaurant and I said, 'No, the restaurant is around the corner' ... but there was an entrance there and [I realized] I had never been to the dining room, I had only been to the bar."
Colicchio, who was raised in Elizabeth, N.J., by a corrections officer father and a school cafeteria worker mother, says there's a good reason his dad always took him to eat in the bar. "We would go on Friday," he recalls. "My father played on a softball team and we would go after the games. He was dirty from playing and he had his uniform on and he didn't want to go into the dining room."
So what dining traditions from his childhood has the Top Chef head judge continued with his own kids, who are 11 and 12?
"We don't do [Sunday gravy] every Sunday but one tradition is I still try to get my family, when I'm home, to sit down and have dinner every night together as a family," he shares. "I think it's important. In the pandemic I started to do it and it's one of those things I'm trying not to go back on. I try to get home, have dinner and then go back to the restaurant."
The 59-year-old dad says he learned about NFTs during the pandemic, too.
"I'm kind of a news junkie both with regular and financial news," he explains. "I kept hearing about the metaverse and blockchain and I started buying some cryptocurrency. I started hearing about NFTs and I had some friends who are much more savvy than I am ... I started looking at the space and saying, 'Well, what is this all about?'"
When Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn reached out looking for partners in a new NFT project, Colicchio decided to dive in. "NFTs are not what I thought they were when I first started looking at them," he says. "I think most people hear about an art piece and they can't wrap their head around it, but it's really a key that unlocks a lot of cool real-life things."
While CHFTY NFT holders will receive real-life perks like preferred reservations, special menu items and messages from the chef, Colicchio has his sights set on virtual bonuses as well.
"We're gonna have restaurants in the metaverse," he says. "There's going to be a day when I can ship you a meal and you can put it together in your house. You'll have virtual reality glasses on and you can transport yourself to my restaurant in 3D and eat the food. You won't have to be in New York to come to the restaurant."
Colicchio, who just finished shooting Top Chef Season 19 in Houston, Texas, says he found some surprisingly delicious cuisines during his stint in the Lone Star State.
"When you think of Texas, people think steaks and obviously Tex-Mex," he says. "I think there's a lot of really authentic Mexican food in Texas as well, but what was really surprising and eye-opening about Houston is that there's amazing Vietnamese food."
"There's a large Vietnamese population in Louisiana and Texas ... and now there are tons of restaurants and there are second and third-generation Vietnamese immigrants that are doing restaurants and being chefs and it's really surprising and eye-opening," he explains. "I mean we know the barbecue and the brisket and the beef and all of that in Texas, but there are some great Vietnamese restaurants in Houston."
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