Chef Boyardee’s line of prepared pasta is not a standard to which most chefs aspire. That includes Christopher Thompson of Coda di Volpe, who was challenged by Kevin McCormick (Beacon Tavern) to create a dish with Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli in Tomato & Meat Sauce. “It’s kind of the antithesis of my philosophy on Italian cooking,” Thompson says. That philosophy includes “buying amazing ingredients and processing them as minimally as possible, leaving them true to their natural form,” he says. He doesn’t even have fond childhood memories of Beefaroni or any of the other Chef Boyardee products: “Fortunately, my parents never cooked this for us.”
Trying the ravioli as an adult did not leave Thompson impressed. “I think the sauce is way too sweet,” he says. “I also find the texture of the pasta to be unpalatable.” He solved the issue by disguising both the flavor and texture as much possible: his finished dish was a meatball pizza without a single mushy raviolo in sight.
Thompson started by straining the sauce from the ravioli, then combining the pasta with Berkshire pork, housemade soppressata, dried ciabatta, buffalo ricotta, oregano, fennel, and chile flakes. All that went into a meat grinder to be turned into meatballs—but not before Thompson had shaved a generous amount of black truffle into the mix. While the can of ravioli cost less than two dollars, he estimates that he put about $50 worth of truffle into the meatballs. “I think they call this putting a hundred-dollar saddle on a five-dollar horse,” he says. But the decision to use black truffles was simple: they’re in season, he had some in the walk-in cooler, and he wanted the dish to taste good.
After forming the meatballs, Thompson roasted them for a few minutes in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven to give them a smoky flavor, then braised them for several hours in a combination of Chef Boyardee meat sauce (which he’d strained from the pasta) and San Marzano tomatoes. The same sauce also went on the pizza, along with the meatballs, Grana Padano cheese, thinly sliced soppressata, and dollops of buffalo ricotta. Cooking it took less than two minutes in the 950-degree wood oven; Thompson finished the pizza with Calabrian chile oil, a few pieces of fresh basil, and more shaved black truffle.
Thompson says that he actually did get some authentic Chef Boyardee flavor and texture from the pizza: “I get a little sweetness in the sauce, a little bit of mushiness in the meatball because the overcooked pasta is an ingredient,” he says. “The soppressata and the truffle makes it a little more palatable. Just like mom never made.”
Thompson has challenged Brent Balika of Margeaux Brasserie in the Waldorf Astoria to create a dish with Vegemite, the Australian spread made from brewer’s yeast extract.