Before Thursday night, my experience with TV tapings was limited.
A couple summers ago I attended an early-a.m. "Good Morning America" concert featuring a very pregnant Alicia Keys. Then last August I ended up at "America's Got Talent." No, not for my endless wit, but as an audience member. It was a results show including a performance by the infamous Rebecca Black. I generally don't advertise this fun fact about myself, but for you, Patch readers, I bare my secrets.
Having only witnessed the production of live TV, seeing pieces of the two-day production of "Restaurant: Impossible" in Aptos on Wednesday and Thursday was a totally different experience.
Say what you will about reality television, but before Food Network showed up this week, poor Ristorante Barolo, in the bottom floor of the Bayview Hotel on Soquel Drive, was like a skeleton of itself — no longer vibrant, just dusty and cluttered. Now, the eatery is elegant, polished and impressive.
On Wednesday morning, Watsonville Patch Editor Jennifer Squires and I got a sneak peek at the beginning of production. Nothing had been changed on the interior of the restaurant. The lunch crowd appeared unsatisfied as host Robert Irvine made the rounds, checking in on tables to get a feel for just how large his task was.
Within an hour, we got the chance to sit down with Robert and talk shop. See the . He may appear icy on TV, but from our conversation on Wednesday and brief interaction Thursday, I'm confident it's an act. Robert Irvine is a sweet guy. And yes, his biceps are bigger than my head.
Before leaving Wednesday, we posed for a . The man who took that photo was Marc Summers. He's an executive producer for "Restaurant: Impossible" and also hosts "Unwrapped" on Food Network. But back in the early 1990s he hosted two game shows on Nickelodeon ("Double Dare" and "What Would You Do"). My inner 8-year-old was thrilled.
Jennifer and I returned to Ristorante Barolo Thursday morning to film a segment of the show talking about less-than-stellar reviews of the restaurant from Patch readers. Much to my fame-seeking disappointment, our segment was canceled. But the trip wasn't a waste — I was pulled into a production tent out front and asked by Tom Bury, the show's carpenter, to help move a large wooden decorative piece to an outdoor table. So that was my 10-second contribution. Despite Jennifer's urging, I couldn't be convinced to spend my afternoon painting chairs on my knees in the Bayview parking lot. Maybe next time.
The restaurant was set to re-open, supposedly completely revamped, at 7 p.m. Food Network Associate Producer Erin Hilgedick, who was amazingly accommodating to the Patch crew the whole time, had us set with a reservation. I arrived at 6:50 along with Jennifer, Brad Kava (Santa Cruz Patch) and Shannon Burkey (Scotts Valley Patch).
The hotel had been covered in front with blurred plastic to keep gawkers from getting a glimpse at the work being done inside. To no one's surprise, the doors were still shut and the plastic was still firmly in place at 7. And at 8. Finally by 8:40, we were seated along with the other 100-plus guests who had waited in the parking lot.
Having visited Ristorante Barolo in January, and again on Wednesday and Thursday morning, I had some time to take in the view. The place was covered with trinkets more suitable for "Storage Wars" than anything food-related. But the walk from the front door to our table in the center dining room Thursday night brought a completely different vista.
In the 36 hours that Irvine had his hands on the place, it was shockingly transformed. Gone are the superfluous garage sale items. The once dingy-white walls are now a moody deep grey. The floor appears refinished, the light fixtures are brand new and most importantly, the menu is entirely changed.
The appetizers arrived first. Mine: olive tapanade-stuffed calamari with anchovy aioli. I like olives and love squid. No complaints. Other appetizers at our table included bruschetta, ricotta ravioli, almond gazpacho and beef carpaccio. I heard no complaints.
Brad took his first bite of gazpacho, looked up and his eyes widened as he exhaled. "Wow, really good."
That's all it took for a lurking Robert Irvine to wrap his arms around Brad's shoulders and bear hug him in appreciation of the affirmation of his hard work. The cameras weren't pointed at us. Robert was just mingling, taking in the tune of each table. It was a genuine moment, not for TV. Truly, it was a scene fit for television, but something about the sincerity of Robert's reaction without a lens in his face made the moment better.
My Caesar salad came out a bit later. It wasn't revolutionary, but I appreciated the fact that the dressing tasted homemade. At the very least, I'm positive they weren't just dumping bargain brand Caesar dressing on some romaine lettuce and calling it a dish.
The entrees made their way to our table a good 30 minutes later, including pan seared bronzino, seared rack of lamb, pappardelle Bolognese and gorgonzola gnocchi. I tried them all. While I ordered the bronzino (which was nice) the lamb was clearly the best entree on the table.
Before our desserts came out, Robert filmed the show's final shot — a close-up in the dining room as he wished the folks at Barolo good luck. When the show airs in late spring, look for the guy over Robert's left shoulder in the black and white striped sweater. That's me. He did about five takes of the shot. It's possible my chair migrated farther and farther into the frame with each shot. Oh well. This is my big break, right?
For the shot, he stood right next to the table occupied by the Hoffman family, who Irvine helped in Santa Cruz with the same show late last year. Robert visited with the Hoffmans periodically throughout the night.
Before we took off, we downed some fig and peach panna cotta as well as a traditional tiramisu. The panna cotta was tasty (Jennifer likened it to a granola bar), but it was closer to a dessert soup than anything resembling gelatin.
Frankly, the service from start to finish was a bit of a disaster. There were stray hairs, missing silverware, forgotten beers, and the whole meal lasted well over two hours. But it was merely a blip on the radar. The servers were clearly stretched to their limits with cameras in their faces, mic packs on and a fuller house than ever before. So, no big deal.
Full disclosure: My stomach aches as I write this, but not at any fault of the Barolo chefs. I blame, or rather credit, Irvine's enticing menu and my complete lack of self control. For now my metabolism allows such reckless caloric intake.
Food Network, Robert Irvine, you are welcome back in town any time you want. Just let me know and I'll show up hungry.
Are you going to go check out the brand new Ristorante Barolo? Tell us in the comments!