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NEW YORK Formaggio di fossa, a 30-year-old cave-aged cheese, was one of the many special ingredients requested for a tasting dish at this year's Citymeals-on-Wheels Chefs Tribute to James Beard benefit, which draws hundreds of gourmands and restaurant industry pros to Rockefeller Center each June. And when Citymeals director of special events Heather Gere and her staff weren't tracking ingredients like Tuscan olive oil and Neopolitan salami, they were arranging hotel accommodations, finding specialized cookware such as truffle shavers, and explaining the unheard-of-in-Italy concept of a tasting event to the nine chefs chosen to cook at this year's benefit by the honoree, Restaurant Associates C.E.O. Nick Valenti.
“We had to explain a few times that they weren't cooking sit-down meals for 800 guests all by themselves,” Gere said. (Citymeals special events associate—a fluent Italian speaker—Margherita Pilato helped the staff overcome the language barrier.)
The Rockwell Group's decor scheme could only be described as Italy-meets-Little-Italy, with red-and-white checked tablecloths, bright sunflowers, and three Vespas parked in the reception area from the dealership in SoHo. “It was sort of a New Yorker's take on an Italian street festival theme,” Gere said. Noah Bless provided musical entertainment, though the group took a break for a performance by soprano Mary Dunleavy, who serenaded Valenti with “O Mio Babbino Caro.”
At the end of the evening, guests walked away with gift bags that contained, among other items, Jenny Craig cheese curls—a low-cal snack that seemed appropriate after sampling gourmet dishes from 35 world-class chef teams and sweets from New York institutions such as Ciao Bella, Fortunato Brothers, and Veniero's. (Mauro Uliassi, chef of the Uliassi Cucina di Mare in the Ancona region of Italy, whose gnocchi in duck sauce required the formaggio di fossa, cooked up one of the most delicious dishes of the evening.)
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