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Dishing With Cafe Firenze's Fabio Viviani of 'Top Chef'

The Italian celeb chef charms foodies at his Moorpark and Toluca Lake eateries.

Chef Fabio Viviani, fan favorite of Bravo TV’s Season 5 Top Chef and most recently a contestant (until episode eight, when Jimmy Fallon eliminated him based on Viviani’s hamburger) on the network’s highly popular Top Chef All Stars, can now be found cooking and charming diners at his two restaurants, in Toluca Lake and in Moorpark.

Both offer traditional Northern Italian rustic cuisine, plenty of comfy booths, big bar areas and open kitchens. Born and raised in Florence, Italy, Viviani began cooking at age six with his great grandmother. Six years later he was baking pies before and after school at a local restaurant. At 14, he entered Italy’s Instituto Professionale per Servizi Alberghieri culinary school. 

Viviani owned and operated, with his partner Jacopo Falleni, several hospitality businesses including six restaurants, two dance clubs and a bed and breakfast in his early twenties. Viviani and Falleni sold their Italian businesses, left the country and came to California in 2005. They worked at Café Fiore in Ventura and with Viviani’s then father-in-law opened Café Firenze two years later, shortly before Viviani appeared on season five of Top Chef.

A few management and legal issues arose, and Viviani and Falleni began looking for another restaurant location.  They paired with Lisa Long to open Firenze Osteria in the old Barsac location in Toluca Lake.

A court decision in their favor left them with two restaurants, and now Falleni and Viviani work at both locations, shuttling between Moorpark and Toluca Lake.

The menus are similar, including favorites such as caprese salad with imported Burrata cheese, lobster ravioli, ricotta dumplings with brown butter, roasted chicken, braised short ribs and killer cannoli.

“The food we cook here is the food you will find in Italy,” said Viviani.

Surprisingly, Viviani turned down the folks at Top Chef three times before appearing on season five. “I didn’t watch the show, I had a restaurant to run and I didn’t speak English very well,” he explained.  By season five, his English was better and the restaurant was running smoothly. Viviani fared well, only up for elimination once during that season and lasting to be one of the four final contestants. 

“The most challenging thing about Top Chef is to not talk back to the judges,” said Viviani.

His favorite challenge? Restaurant wars. Having dined at both of his restaurants, I don’t even have to ask why he chose the challenge where chefs divide into two teams and open competing eateries. His team overwhelmingly won.

As I cook duck sausage gnocchi with Viviani (recipe below) in the attached video, and later watch him work the crowd and simultaneously produce mouthwatering Italian dishes, it’s apparent that Viviani mirrors his restaurants - sexy, warm and inviting.

Here’s the recipe for Gnocchi with Caramelized Fennel and Duck Sausage that he cooked for me:

8 ounces gnocchi

1 cup shaved fennel

1 cup duck sausage

Salt, pepper

1 tablespoon garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

Pinch of parsley

Parmesan cheese

Caramelize the shaved fennel in olive oil. Add sausage, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley and simmer until cooked through. Cook gnocchi in boiling salted water.  Toss gnocchi into the pan with the sausage mixture, add a few tablespoons of pasta water if needed and mix. Plate and serve with shaved Parmesan cheese.

John Perdigao March 09, 2011 at 01:16 AM
Cafe Firenze in Moorpark is one of the best places to eat in LA, not just Ventura County. The food and service are both first rate. I try to make it in every other week even in the tough economic times.
Stacie Wheeler March 09, 2011 at 04:46 PM
Oooh duck sausage! I've never tried that. I would have never thought Moorpark would have a restaurant like Cafe Firenze. It's my favorite. The tiramisu is heavenly:)
Danielle Huxley March 09, 2011 at 06:29 PM
John, have you seen they have an "under $10" menu for lunch? Now, you might be able to go there EVERY week. lol (No, I don't work for them, I just really like the food...)

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