When Mario Batali opened BABBO in New York City 20 years ago, his Italian fine-dining restaurant immediately became the darling of the city. New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl awarded it a coveted three stars. Reservations were all but impossible to procure. I know. I tried for three years to secure a booking for the Parasole culinary team before finally giving up.
Years passed. Then Ruth Reichl’s successor at the Times, Frank Bruni, revisited Babbo. Once again, the restaurant was awarded three stars – and I tried once again to land a reservation.
Somehow, I succeeded, and a month later the Parasole team sat down for a 7PM reservation.
Among the things that jumped out at us was that Babbo was hardly playing it safe – not with menu offerings like fresh anchovies, lamb’s tongue with brown beech mushrooms, goat’s head, beef cheeks with black truffles and a sauce of “crushed squab livers,” and fennel-dusted sweetbreads with duck bacon, sweet and sour onions and quince vinaigrette. At the time, I didn’t know if sweetbreads were brains or balls. (They’re neither.)
Something else we couldn’t help but notice: The soundtrack was blasting rock ‘n roll – Led Zeppelin, according to one of my dining companions. Irritating? YES. But perhaps someone figured the eardrum-blasting music paired nicely with the robust and lusty dishes on the menu, or that it was simply on-brand for Mario Batali. You can get away with shit like when you’re a celebrity chef in NYC.
Another discovery: the absolutely epic all-Italian wine list. Among the 1,300 bottles (I ordered Joanne to count them) were 130 Chianti Classicos alone!
Oh, and they didn’t sell wine by the glass. They only sold it by the QUARTINO – a smallish 250ml carafe, about a third of a bottle).
Now, by this time, Mario Batali had become a true culinary superstar – one whose every venture generated fawning press coverage. Along with Babbo, he had several other successful New York City restaurants (including Casa Mono, Lupa, and Del Posto) and additional eateries in places like Las Vegas. He was also involved with the tremendously successful Eataly food hall concept. He’d authored numerous best-selling cookbooks, headlined a TV show, and he had a line (maybe even several lines) of branded food products. Chefs don’t get any more famous than Mario Batali was.
With crowds lined-up daily outside of Babbo, it seems that he could have easily swollen up the prices. But he didn’t. I recall that the eight of us paid around $70 each – including wine. Not bad, not bad at all!
So ALL IN we went, ordering items from the various and distinct regions of Italy, north to south, from VENICE to SICILY, and from the ADRIATIC to the MEDITERRANEAN. And as near as I could tell, all were faithfully executed (If you’re going to do goat’s head, there’s no point in trying to dumb it down).
Among our favorites: From TUSCANY, a 2lb dry-aged porterhouse for two…Bistecca alla Fiorentina. Osso Bucco, Riscotto Milanese and chestnut gremolata from MILAN. Grilled branzino with braised fennel lemon yogurt from…I-don’t-know-where (Italy is just one big peninsula, after all). I also remember a spectacular bone-in, thick-cut veal chop with morel mushrooms.
Now, here are a couple items that are outside the comfort zone of most American diners but representative of Babbo’s gutsy menu: Lamb’s Tongue Salad topped with brown beech mushrooms, a 3-minute soft egg, and of course the goat’s head – shared by all at the table (except Joanne). The sides of the FACE were tasty. The EYEBALLS? I don’t know. Didn’t see my way to trying them.
Beef Cheek Ravioli with Black Truffles and Crushed Squab Livers were delicious…and Babbo absolutely nailed the pride of SICILY: Pasta Alla Norma, redolent with braised chunks of eggplant, tomatoes and garlic, laced with fresh oregano and topped with ricotta salata.
Those are my recollections from several years back. There were some minor bumps, though. At Babbo, reservations were treated casually, at best. Our party of eight waited outside for about 40 minutes for our 7PM reservations – no acknowledgment or apology. Our waiter, while knowledgeable and pleasant, seemed to drop out of sight for lengthy periods, leaving our wine and water glasses empty. When asked if they could lower the music volume so we could carry on a conversation, the manager said no. The skin on the grilled quail was soft, gray, and flaccid.
Now, this was not catastrophic. We had an excellent meal.
But then something catastrophic did happen…around 2017-2018. Mario Batli was kicked out of his empire amid a flurry of sexual harassment and assault allegations. He surrendered his ownership in all his restaurants. The Las Vegas properties closed. His TV show, Molto Mario, was canceled. And Target pulled all the Batali Pasta Sauces from its shelves.
And if that weren’t enough, then COVID hit. Double whammy!!!
Babbo, like all restaurants, was closed off-and-on during the next couple years.
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN? COULD IT EVER REOPEN – ESPECIALLY WITHOUT BATALI?
Well, Babbo survived. And just a few short weeks ago, we returned.
Truth be told, it wasn’t our first choice of restaurants. But reservations weren’t available at NYC’s newest hotspots, so we “settled” for Babbo, wondering how it could possibly maintain its standards after losing its chef and enduring a pandemic.
WELL, STAY TUNED.
A lot has changed at Babbo. And a lot has not.
For openers. Our party of eight was seated immediately…and with a smile. The music was in the background, not the foreground. And though I didn’t recognize the artists, I can tell you that Led Zeppelin wasn’t on the playlist.
We revisited the grilled quail with salsify and were delighted to find that the bird was expertly prepared with crisp, taught crackly skin. Then there was the inventive amuse bouche of tiny polenta cracker sandwiches stuffed (I think) with chicken liver mousse that had been kissed with French onion soup. Sounds strange, TASTED GREAT.
Grilled octopus with gigante beans and a sassy limoncello vinaigrette was followed by beef carpaccio with a satisfying and generous addition of thinly shaved black truffles and a drizzling of extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oil. Next was something you rarely see: Castelfranco Lettuce Salad with candied pecans and pomegranate from Castelfranco, Italy. I call it pink radicchio.
Babbo has always been known for its pasta. It even offers a five-course pasta tasting menu that I’ve got to try. One of the scrumptious creations we enjoyed was rigatoni with arugula, pesto, pine nut gremolata, and fiore di latte (soft and creamy cow’s milk cheese). Also, Babbo’s deeply rich Pappardelle Bolognese should not be missed. It’s perfect.
“ONE HUNDRED LAYER LASAGNA?” What’s what? It’s just that: one hundred layers for $36. Also on offer was a Venetian classic – Squid Ink Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp and Bacon. YUM.
We had Stinging Nettle fettuccine with black walnuts and morels. (stinging nettles? sorta like ramped-up spinach). Loved the Casunziei….beet and poppy seed ravioli in butter and sage. Nice fall offering.
And now the test:
In the North, pastas that call for grated cheese are typically crowned with Parmigiano Reggiano. Further south, around Rome, chefs are partial to sheep’s-milk cheeses, like Pecorino Romano.
Ah, but in the south, in Sicily, where it’s much too hot to raise sheep and dairy cows, the prevalent pasta sprinkling by far is bread crumbs – glorious, nervy, pert and crispy bread crumbs.
So I had to test Babbo and order the popular and luscious Sicilian Pasta Con Sarde (bucatini pasta with sardines, fennel, toasted pine nuts and hot red pepper flakes). The test will come at the table…Will the server grate cheese over the pasta? And if so, which cheese? Or will he do it the Sicilian way – the correct way – with bread crumbs?
I should have known. I might as well have been in Catania, Palermo or Taormina because as the platter of Pasta Con Sarde was set down in front of me, right on cue…HERE COME THE BREAD CRUMBS.
They know their stuff.
Proteins followed: Lamb chops with broccoli rabe pesto, lemon yogurt and mint…duck breast with chicory, preserved lemon, kumquats and pickled rhubarb vinaigrette…bathmat sized Veal Milanese…fresh red snapper…ribeye steak drizzled with Manodori balsam vinegar…and rabbit with carrot vinaigrette and autumn caponata. . All good.
The signature dessert? Olive Oil Cake with Gelato. Authentically Tuscan…authentically delightful.
But AUTHENTICITY can be dangerous.
The lone example at Babbo? Northern Italy, near Milan and Parma, is the home of PROSCIUTTO HAM. After harvesting the bulk of the pig, including chops and ribs, they get down to the question: What the hell do we do with the feet?
One answer, of dubious distinction I might add, is, “Let’s turn the feet into Pig’s Foot Milanese.” You prepare it by grinding up the small amount of flesh between the toes on the feet, (ICK) adding rice and beans to the mix, then pressing the mixture into a patty to be fried in olive oil.
It’s certainly an AUTHENTIC offering at Babbo….but it’s NOT EASY TO LOVE – that is unless you savor gooey, gelatinous, gummy, greasy, and gluey taste sensations.
JUST BECAUSE IT’S AUTHENTIC, DOESN’T MEAN IT TASTES GOOD.
P.S. If you plan on traveling to New York, and you have a hankerin’ for REALLY, REALLY GOOD ITALIAN, I highly recommend BABBO.