A Reality Cooking Competition That Only Nonna Could Love

The Food Network’s ‘Ciao House,’ instructive, annoying, and not too bad

The commercials made it look like an old GEICO ad: Ten chefs. One house. Italian nonnas. “Ciao House.” This can’t be real, I thought, and if it is real, it looks terrible. Then it was late one night, and I was idly browsing cooking shows, and there it was. Ciao House is real. And it’s pretty good!

The format of Ciao House, now airing Sundays on Food Network, is roughly Barefoot Contessa meets “Survivor: lovely shots of Tuscany, an enormous villa, shouty teams of chefs, wicker patio sets, alliances and backstabbing. Lording over it all is Alex Guarnaschelli, one of the Food Network’s busiest stars, not quite as loosened up as her job on Supermarket Stakeout but nowhere near as grimly focused as she is while competing. Colicchio cosplay, in other words, but in a much prettier milieu than the Top Chef judges’ table, all chrome-plated and merciless. The grand prize is vaguely described as an “immersive culinary education with some of the best Italian master chefs,” which sure sounds like an unpaid stage in a freezing-cold Milanese prep kitchen to me.

And then of course there’s that silly name–Gabriel Bertaccini, Guarnaschelli’s co-judge and Actual Italian Guy, makes it known with dramatic flourish that “ciao” means “hello…and goodbye” – and the fact that this is the Food Network, so certain unwritten rules are in play. The ultimate goal of any Food Network show, of course, is to produce a bright new face to pop up on Guy’s Grocery Games and judge the 55th season of Chopped, and generally just be likable and make real Italian food look so easy, even you could do it on a weeknight!

Therefore, most of the people on the show are private chefs or caterers, or influencers called things like “the pasta heiress.” Nobody with a major culinary reputation, in other words, and several people who’ve never worked in a professional kitchen at all, except one chef who’s inexplicably a Chopped grand champion. The other chefs treat her with respectful humility upon hearing this fact, as though it makes her Marcella Hazan.

In her defense, she does seem like one of the two or three people on the show who have a clue. The others are a former Tulane lineman who somehow makes fresh pasta in 45 minutes, and another chef who displays the requisite crankiness of someone who’s clearly spent too long working a line. There’s also an early challenge winner who quickly reveals herself to be one of the most unpleasant characters in recent competitive cooking show memory. And given the format (team challenges, with the losing team voting one of its members off), there’s liable to be plenty of betrayal and twists to come. But that’s not the interesting thing about Ciao House.

Those nonnas I mentioned? They’re there to give a hands-on demonstration of pasta making, and it’s here that the show really shines. With a languid tone and gauzy visuals, these segments allow the show to breathe a little, and resemble similar segments on MasterChef Australia, which is nothing like its US/UK counterparts. (Did you know that it airs five nights a week, and has been one of the top 10 shows on Australian TV for fifteen years?) You actually learn something watching Ciao House. And then you get to watch a bunch of chefs invariably fuck it up.

So its lane is a little unclear. Foodies seem to think it’s too much of a reality show, reality fans seem to think it’s too focused on technique. After watching a couple of episodes, it feels refreshing to have a show like this, on this network, that isn’t about dopey gimmick ingredients or Guy Fieri mugging endlessly at the camera. Sure, its manufactured drama is front and center, but the luminous allure of Tuscany and the mostly beautiful, sometimes tragic cooking are at the heart of Ciao House. You look so skinny, the nonnas might say. Try a bite of this.

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Daniel Cohen

Daniel Cohen is a software developer who lives in Syracuse, New York. He has written for Yard Work, The Guardian, and Maura Magazine.

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