When she's not serving up justice as a judge on Hot Bench, Judge Patricia DiMango can often be found in the kitchen serving up pasta.
An Italian-American who grew up in New York, DiMango spent years in New York's court system, including as a judge on the State Supreme Court, before becoming one of the three judges on Hot Bench.
But long before she became a star in the courtroom, DiMango's home was the kitchen. "I've been cooking since I was a kid, really," she says. "I was always in the kitchen with my mother, my grandmother and my aunt. They trained me to do things, like 'Here’s a little bit of dough, roll it out,' or 'stir this.' So it was something that I grew to love when I was young."
DiMango's passion for both the law and food hasn't waned over the years. She's now in her seventh season as a Hot Bench judge, and she's started cooking even more during the pandemic.
We caught up with the judge to talk all things Hot Bench, lasagna, and watching Judge Judy.
Rachael Ray In Season: First, congrats on season 7 of Hot Bench! How are things going, so far?
Judge DiMango: We are doing amazingly well. We finished as the No. 3 daytime show in our 2019-2020 season, and we were the No. 2 daytime show for 13 straight weeks this summer. And of course we're still the No. 2 judge show. We have a very committed audience!
What's been your favorite part of being on the show in its seven years?
The whole experience is different from what I was used to. I'm from New York. I've been in the court system for... I don't even want to say how many years but a loooong time. The whole idea of moving to Hollywood and being a TV judge was very different for me, very different from my government judgeship. Being here, being part of the industry and working with people of a different mindset and different interests has been very stimulating for me.
How has filming changed with COVID?
We wear masks, we keep social distance, and we've met all COVID compliance guidelines. We actually have someone on set who is like a COVID police officer, basically. If she sees anybody getting too close or anybody not following the rules, not wearing their masks—because you do forget, occasionally—she corrects them. So we have met COVID compliance and we’re working on doing it the right way.
How did you keeping busy before at the start of the pandemic, before you started filming again?
I’m the kind of person who wants to be busy, who wants to be active. So at first I was like, “Let me take care of my home." I would go through drawers, I would organize the pencil tray. I would do various things. And then when I finally ran out of cabinets, drawers, and closets, I said, “Well I better do something else.”
I began exercising indoors, which I didn’t usually do. The only exercise I’m usually comfortable with, for the most part, is walking, but I was hesitant to do that, so I started to get on the spin bike on a regular basis, which I felt was amazing.
And I love cooking, so I started cooking more. I started to put things together using what was in the home because initially I didn’t even go to the store and I wouldn’t order anything in.
We're familiar with your cooking! The lasagna you made on Rachael back in 2015 still gets lots of praise.
That’s my claim to fame! People say to me, “You made lasagna on Rachael!” You know, the general public, they love Rachael. So the fact that I got onto Rachael Ray is so special to me because it’s so special to other people. Especially in my neighborhood where I grew up, you know, very large Italian-American community, there’s a certain simpatico with the cooking show. And she’s just so well-loved and people just embrace her, and they embraced me as well because she actually invited me there to make lasagna, so I loved it.
Were you nervous to make lasagna for her?
Of course! Of course. I was a nervous wreck thinking I was going to be up there splattering and cooking and chopping onions and garlic. When I walked to the set and saw that big, long kitchen, I said, “Oh my god, I’ve never seen this kitchen before. How am I going to cook?” But then of course one of the producers was like, "You’re not really making the meal, Patricia. You’re not really making the meal." And you know, things were set up—there was sauce in a pot and I added a few spices. Rachael was there guiding me down the assembly line of the pot, the meat. And of course you get to the end and she says, "Oh, let’s take it out of the oven" and there’s your dish already made. So it ended up being fine. But I was still nervous!
You've been on Rach's show several times. What do you like about being a guest?
I love being on the show. I love the people there. Everyone, starting from Rachael all the way down, everyone that greets and meets me—it’s just so warm. I've done a number of shows where I've made appearances, and Rachael was the first time I was greeted person-to-person by the host of a show before I got on set. She came to my green room, knocked on the door, and she was there!
I held her in awe. She was an Italian-American woman who was bright and talented and beautiful, and she took advantage of her Italian heritage and the fact that we make dinners and meals and spend time together with our families, and she put it out there. And there she was at my door! And she was complimentary of me. She said, “Oh my goodness, you’re such an attractive judge and I’m happy to have you here and thank you for being here.” And at that moment, immediately, I just felt such a sense of camaraderie and simpatico between us—an instant bond. When you’re out there, she gives you this, "You’re okay, what you’re doing is okay." You get the calmness from her that she’s happy with you and that she likes you. And that’s important! That’s very important when you’re there facing all these strangers.
And everybody’s nice. From the time you step out of the car, the person that greets me at the car and brings me up to the elevator, and it’s just… I just love being there.
Speaking of daytime shows, are there any courtroom TV judges you like best?
Well... I love watching Judge Judy! She’s the best. I mean, if I’m gonna watch a show, I’m gonna watch the only other show that’s rated above us, and that’s Judge Judy. She’s number one and she’s our queen. She is the queen bee. And we’re second to her. So I don’t know, I’m sure the others are interesting and fun to watch, but I’m sticking with Judy.
Let's talk about a few of your other favorite things. First, what do you love about cooking?
I love cooking because I love eating! I think it’s a way to show people you care. It’s a very special way of inviting people into your home and making something that comes from your heart.
I grew up cooking. I was always in the kitchen with my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt. I always had questions about what they were doing, how they were making something. And then they trained me to do things, like “Here’s a little bit of dough, roll it out," or "stir this." So it was very family-oriented task, and it's culturally ingrained in me in some way.
What's a dish that immediately brings you back to childhood?
Any kind of pasta dish. Any time I think about just the scent or the aroma of cooking gravy or tomato sauce, I wonder, "Am I addicted to this stuff?" Because, to me, it’s almost like a sin: If it’s leftover in the refrigerator, I have to eat it. It's like a sin to throw it out because it’s so delicious.
So I always think back on my grandma and my mother and the aroma. For my first few years of life we all grew up at my grandmother’s house, and I’m first generation. So what I remember distinctly is being surrounded by the Italian language, always seeing something cooking on the stove, the smell of the sauce and gravy. Just... just that. And I mean, you want to talk about comfort food or something that goes to your senses, it’s the aroma, the scent, the taste and macaroni and tomato sauce and gravy.
What's your favorite Italian dish to make?
Lasagna! That's the queen of all pasta. It takes so much time and effort to create it, so I love making it.
Is there a dish you've always wanted to make but haven't yet?
Yes, there is actually. Funny you should say that. I want to be able to make cacio e pepe. I don’t make that. I’d like to make that. My mother never made it, so I don’t really know how to do it.
What's been keeping you from making it?
Maybe I’ll try it, but I need to see it. I think cooking is an apprenticeship, really. The recipe may say three tablespoons of oil, but when you put it in a pan and your look at it, you may say, "Oh, I got all of this zucchini and only this oil, I better add a little more oil." But if you tell somebody the recipe, sometimes they say, “It says three tablespoons, and that’s what I’m sticking with.” And you can’t cook that way. You have to have a feel for it. And I think that’s why the apprenticeship aspect of cooking is very important. So I want to watch Rachael make cacio e pepe. And then hopefully I can try it.
Do you have a favorite food to not cook—to order in on a Friday?
When I really want to treat myself, I stay in and have Chinese food. Or pizza. I don't have those often for weight-watching purposes, but I do love them.