NATE GUIDRY/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS

Rocco DiSpirito finds comfort in going keto

By Arthi Subramaniam, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
NATE GUIDRY/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS

Rocco DiSpirito's mother's meatballs were legendary at the now defunct Rocco's on 22nd Street, a red-sauce restaurant in New York City. He gives the meatballs a keto twist by using cheese crisps instead of breadcrumbs and serving them with zoodles instead of pasta.

The keto diet was everything Rocco DiSpirito ever dreamed of.

The notion that fat is fuel was music to his ears. He could lose some serious weight and fast while continuing to eat cheese, heavy cream, steaks, bacon and his "favorite food in the world" - butter.

As a restaurant chef, he cooked with real fats all the time and so was tasting them constantly. Plus, the diet worked; he was losing "shedloads" of pounds.

However, along with the weight loss came boredom. The limited diet excludes most fruits, starchy vegetables, bread, pasta and grains. This meant he could not have the crusty Italian bread, lasagna or breaded chicken Parmesan that he grew up on. Taste fatigue was setting in and so was panic.

"I started pondering this whole keto-is-boring thing and thinking about how I could turn keto meals into comfort food at its tastiest, especially at a time when my own fat-burning flames needed some fanning," he writes in his latest cookbook, "Rocco's Keto Comfort Food Diet," which went on sale earlier this month.

He was convinced that the diet needed a makeover. While staying true to its motto of low carbs and high fat, it needed to include a wider range of foods and ones that people enjoy eating.

"I wanted to advance conversations about keto by combining it with comfort foods because they usually conform to a lot of starches," DiSpirito said in a recent phone interview.

"Rocco's Keto Comfort Food Diet" is the Culinary Institute of America grad's 14th cookbook. His first, "Flavor," won a James Beard Award; the last nine books have been about health and wellness.

Long before becoming a keto diet advocate, DiSpirito was a rock star in the culinary world. In the late 1990s, he ran the kitchen in New York City's Union Pacific, earning a three-star review from The New York Times. His eponymous restaurant on 22nd Street was the subject of a NBC reality series, "The Restaurant."

In 2004, he fell on hard times, and announced he is taking a break from his restaurant's day-to-day operations. He turned to pitch for pasta, pots and luxury cars, popping up on reality TV shows as a judge and fox-trotting as a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars."

Then out of the blue, he returned to the restaurant world in 2018 when he joined The Standard Grill in New York City as executive chef, only to leave the business again last October.

These days he is a chef without a restaurant. His company, Pound a Day, promotes his Pound a Day diet, which is designed to help people lose up to 5 pounds every five days. He advises clients in New York City, Los Angeles and Florida on how they can enjoy their favorite foods through healthy dieting.

DiSpirito was scheduled to have been among the panelists to talk about health, wellness and the keto lifestyle at the 42nd annual International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Pittsburgh later this month. The conference has since been postponed to October because of concerns over COVID-19.

Here are some highlights from the phone interview:

Why keto works: "It's the easiest diet to understand and is about low carbs and high fats. You have to avoid empty calorie carbs and there are not many obstacles to meet. It is a diet without deprivation and it keeps up its promise: If you follow the diet faithfully, you will lose weight rapidly."

How it works: "Sugar, not fat, is the villain. When you limit carbs in your diet, the body shifts from the carb tank to the fat tank and burns the fat faster. So dieters can lose a pound a day, feel energized but not deprived."

On comfort and cravings: Eating comfort foods the keto way played a big role in not only satisfying his cravings but also not leaving him hangry. As a result he was able to fit keto into his lifestyle almost effortlessly.

In his recipes, all-purpose flour is replaced by almond and coconut flours for biscuits, muffins, doughnuts, cinnamon rolls and dumpling soup. Pancakes and desserts are sweetened with erythritol and leafy greens stand in for bread in tacos and burgers.

Meatballs are served with zucchini noodles and cauliflower comes to the rescue in a low-carb pizza, mashed potatoes, hash browns and mac 'n' cheese.

Common sense advice: "It is a false narrative that a diet works only when you are dieting. If you comply with the metrics of a diet and transform into a conscious eater, it will work. Then all you need to do is to continue the good behavior for life.

"Through counseling, I convert my clients to make informed decisions. As a result some of them have lost 7 to 8 pounds in three days."

On bending the rules: He said some keto rules are over the top, and so dieters can loosen up some as time goes on. But he insisted they need to stay on a strict plan in the beginning, especially if they have bad food habits.

Although the diet advocates eating lots of red meat, "one should not be eating it three times a day, seven days a week," he says. Also, it is not advisable to be on it forever. "People do need to add exercising and leafy foods to the mix. You need to look at it holistically."

Next on the keto agenda: "It's about pushing the conversation toward plant-based, Mediterranean and clean and whole foods."

On other diets: The first diet he ever tried was Atkins. He went on the diet because he was training for a triathlon and wanted to get into shape quickly. "I lost 10 pounds but found it restrictive and so moved to keto."

He has avoided the Sirtfood diet, which includes special foods like dark chocolate and red wine. Dieters can consume a total of only 1,000 calories for the first three days. "Sirtfood is disingenuous and I am not in favor of its severe calorie restrictions. Its whole hook is the red wine and chocolate."

Memories of Pittsburgh: When DiSpirito was a Culinary Institute student, his roommate was a native Pittsburgher. When they visited, he remembers being struck by how helpful people were.

"When I woke up in the morning, my roommate's father was washing and waxing my car. That was really bizarrely nice of him. It wasn't just him. I found other people to be charming, too. I hope you have held on to your kindness and generosity. People say it is one of the most livable cities in the country. I'm from New York City and I don't easily accept that. But I understand why people say it. Pittsburgh has a pace that is just right."



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Rocco DiSpirito's mother's meatballs were legendary at the now defunct red sauce restaurant, Rocco's on 22nd Street, in New York City. He gives the meatballs a keto twist by using cheese crisps instead of breadcrumbs and serving them with zoodles.

It is important not to overcook the meatballs, he said, and add more stock to make them juicy. Also, instead of whole eggs, add the protein psyllium husk to the egg white for a good mouthfeel.

For marinara sauce

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, crushed through a press

2 tablespoons finely chopped yellow onion

3/4 teaspoon tomato paste

Red pepper flakes

Celtic sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 (16-ounce) can tomato puree

1/2 (16-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup chicken stock

1 1/2 cups water

1/8 teaspoon liquid stevia (optional)

For meatballs

Olive oil or avocado oil cooking spray

1/3 cup chicken stock

1/4 yellow onion, roughly chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled but whole

1/2 pound ground beef

1/2 pound ground pork

1/2 pound ground veal

1/3 cup store-bought Parmesan crisps (such as Whisps)

2 large eggs

1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon Celtic sea salt

For zucchini noodles

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound store-bought zucchini noodles

Celtic sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving

For marinara sauce: In a saucepot, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add garlic and onion, and cook until garlic is tender and onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook for 30 seconds.

Season with red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper to taste.

Add tomato puree, crushed tomatoes, chicken stock and water to the pot along with liquid stevia (if using) and stir to combine.

Bring to a simmer, season with salt to taste, cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes.

If the sauce is too thick, add a little water. The sauce should be fairly thin and very smooth, but not watery.

For meatballs: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat sheet pan with cooking spray.

In a food processor or blender, combine chicken stock, onion and garlic and puree.

Transfer mixture to a large bowl and add meats, crisps, eggs, Parmigiano, pepper flakes, parsley and salt. Mix with your hands until just combined, being careful not to overmix.

Grease hands with olive oil and form mixture into 12 balls a little smaller than golf balls.

Arrange meatballs on the sheet pan and bake until browned, 18-20 minutes.

Transfer finished meatballs to marinara sauce and allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes.

Prepare zucchini noodles: In a large saute pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until shimmering.

Add zucchini noodles and cook until tender but still a little crunchy, 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Serve meatballs and sauce over zucchini noodles sprinkled with Parmigiano.

Makes 6 servings.

- "Rocco's Keto Comfort Food Diet" by Rocco DiSpirito (Rodale Books, March 2020)


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The almond flour-based dumplings in this soup should not be cooked on a high setting or allowed to simmer for too long because they will fall apart.

For soup

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces

Celtic sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 yellow onion, diced

1 stalk celery, diced

1 small carrot, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons fresh thyme

4 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1/3 cup heavy cream

For dumplings

1 cup shredded low-moisture whole-milk mozzarella cheese

2 tablespoons full-fat cream cheese

3/4 cup almond flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Celtic sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 large egg, beaten

Make chicken soup: In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over high heat until shimmering. Season chicken with salt and pepper, add to pot and cook until golden brown on all sides and almost cooked through, about 8 minutes total. Remove chicken to a plate.

Add onion, celery and carrot to pot and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.

Add garlic during the last minute of cooking. Add thyme and season with salt and pepper.

Return chicken to pot, add chicken stock, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.

Cook for 25 minutes to meld the flavors and season again with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in parsley and cream and reduce to the lowest simmer setting.

Make the dumplings: Place mozzarella and cream cheese in microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at 30-second intervals, stirring after each, until melted and smooth.

Add almond flour and baking powder and season with salt and pepper.

Once cooled slightly, add beaten egg and stir until dough forms.

Transfer dough to a piece of parchment paper and roll into 12 small balls.

Drop dumplings into simmering soup and cook until lightly puffed, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Do not simmer on a high setting or for too long.

Makes 6 servings.

- "Rocco's Keto Comfort Food Diet" by Rocco DiSpirito (Rodale Books, March 2020)


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This copycat version of Red Lobster's famous cheddar biscuits is light, buttery and just as addictive.

1 3/4 cups almond flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon Celtic sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons cold unsalted grass-fed butter, cubed

1 large egg, beaten

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together almond flour, baking powder, sea salt and pepper until combined. Add butter and press into the flour mixture using your fingers until pea-sized pieces form.

Add egg and sour cream and stir until just combined. Add cheddar and chives and stir gently to incorporate. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Drop 6 biscuits (about 1/3 cup each) onto prepared baking sheet. Bake until golden brown and puffed, 8-10 minutes. Allow to cool on the pan for 5 minutes before serving warm.

Serves 6.

- "Rocco's Keto Comfort Food Diet" by Rocco DiSpirito (Rodale Books; March 2020)

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