While he built his cooking empire on introducing Americans to the accessibility and pleasure of Italian cuisine, Mario Batali is shifting his focus on America itself and its regional treasures

By mariayagoda
September 23, 2016 01:41 PM
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Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic

While he built his cooking empire on introducing Americans to the accessibility and pleasure of Italian cuisine, Mario Batali is shifting his focus on America itself and its regional treasures—think ribs, fried chicken and cheesesteaks.

For his newest cookbook, Mario Batali Big American Cookbook (out Oct. 4), The Chew co-host traveled around the country to find the most iconic and best American recipes. Along the way, he learned quite a bit about American cuisine, which he says is more regionally-minded than people realize.

“As you travel from town to town, you see how a recipe starts somewhere and goes somewhere else when you get a little closer to the lakes, or as the ethnic makeup of the people in that town changes—whether the Czechs came in first and then the Ukraines joined them later, or whether the Russians came and then finally the Italians showed up,” Batali said on Thursday at an event for his new book. “But what you find is this remarkable exchange.”

Batali shared with PEOPLE the 7 foods you absolutely have to eat in America. (Disclaimer: He was prepared to list hundreds more, but for the sake of brevity, we asked him to keep it tight.)

1. Basically anything in New Orleans
“You have to eat in New Orleans, whether it’s jambalaya or étouffée or Oysters Rockefeller.”

2. Barbecue
“You have to eat barbecue, whether it’s in North Carolina or South Carolina or East Carolina or Texas. I like the whole hog of East Carolina with just the red pepper and the vinegar sauce … but I like to dip it in the South Carolina mustard sauce, which they would not have. I like it all chopped up with the crunchy skin strewn throughout.”

3. Eastern European-inflected food from Cleveland and the Great Lakes
“Whether it’s a Ukranian kielbasa or some kind of sausage or one of those pirogies.”

4. A puffy taco from San Antonio
“You need to eat something from Texas.”

5. Seafood from the Pacific Northwest
“Whether its barbecue salmon or grilled oysters on the half-shell grilled, you need to explore the breadth and depth of the Pacific Northwest. That’s where I’m from.”

6. Broccoli rabe and pork cutlet sandwich (or a cheesesteak) in Philadelphia
“I used to go to a place in Philadelphia called Shank’s and Evelyn’s and get the broccoli and pork cutlet sandwich with hot sauce, and the ladies would sneak you that ballpark mustard because the chef didn’t want it on. Damn!”

7. Cioppino (seafood stew) in California
“As you get closer to the West Coast, you see things get a little bit more modified. It becomes something that’s totally fascinating to me.”

Batali insists that it’s a wonderful time for chefs, home cooks and enthusiastic eaters in America — and we’re inclined to agree. “Americans are accepting their gastronomic identity and embracing it in a way that makes them proud” Batali said. “It’s a great moment.”