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R&IEditorial Archives2005Special Ivy Issue — Special Report

Babbo, New York City

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Babbo hums with activity during service, with center tables (above, top) hosting much of the action. On the menu, dishes such as asparagus vinaigrette with black-pepper Pecorino zabaglione (above, middle) and swordfish involtini alla Siciliana (above) create a buzz, marrying local ingredients to traditional Italian techniques.

Babbo’s simply elegant exterior (above, top) pays homage to previous tenant and local institution The Coach House. Batali shows his pride in the kitchen’s house-made salumi with dishes such as capocollo with dandelions and fiddlehead pickles (above, middle), while a trio of bruschetta (above) with roasted beets and Parmigiana, tomato and sheep’s milk cheese, and garbanzo beans offers fresh takes on familiar antipasti.

Before Lupa, Esca and Otto Enoteca; before Italian Wine Merchants and Bistro du Vent; before their joint culinary famiglia grew into a budding gastronomic empire, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich christened Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, the first restaurant born of their respective talents and mutual flair for hospitality.

Named for the Italian word for “father” and opened in 1998, the same year each welcomed his own firstborn, the restaurant is the embodiment of Batali and Bastianich’s trademark philosophy: simply prepared and presented food, crafted in the traditional style of Italy but using the fresh, local ingredients of its American home, paired with the best Italian wines.

Opened: 1998
Seats: 90
Daily covers: 250 weekdays; 290 on weekends
Primi and secondi price range: $17 to $29
Wine inventory: 50,000 to 60,000 bottles
Average check: $70 to $100

The cosmopolitan crowd and high-energy vibe that still pour from Babbo stand as testament to this vision, one the two cherish.

“It makes me happy just to be there,” says Bastianich seven years after the eatery debuted as a hotspot. “This will always be a special restaurant for both of us. It really was the launching point.”

Housed in a warmly lit, sparsely decorated townhouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Babbo’s upstairs and downstairs dining rooms offer subtly different ambiences. The first-floor space includes both bar and kitchen, creating a darker, livelier atmosphere; upstairs, a skylight brightens more elegant and subdued surroundings.

Round tables of heavy oak at the heart of each room set the stage for a dash of culinary theater: filleting fish, carving meat and chicken, preparing wine. During service on both floors, the hectic, bustling scene plays out against a soundtrack that seems incongruous yet strangely appropriate: The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and other house favorites.

“It’s an amusement park of food and wine and Italian-ness,” says Wine Director David Lynch, who has co-authored two volumes on wine with Bastianich, a friend and colleague since their days at Boston College. “Babbo captures the spirit of a great Italian osteria in a very real way, although they don’t play Led Zeppelin in Italian osterias.”

A mixed clientele of regulars, locals and travelers often reserve Babbo’s 90 seats well in advance, but well-timed walk-ins might find a coveted seat among six deuces set aside for that purpose in the always-hopping bar. Regardless of location, all diners are invited to immerse themselves fully in the food and wine experience.

“One of the hallmarks of great hospitality is the actual pleasure in seeing someone else have pleasure,” says Batali, a larger-than-life personality whose presence quickens the pulse of any space he enters, be it kitchen, dining room or television studio.

Master of Method

The chef’s menu reflects his much-lauded ability to coax sublime results from simple methods. Batali puts his stamp on traditional, rustic dishes by reworking recipes to celebrate local ingredients, a philosophy brought to life in signatures such as beef-cheek ravioli in a sauce of squab liver, black truffles and butter; sautéed calamari “Sicilian lifeguard style” with Israeli couscous, pine nuts, currants, capers and crushed red-peppers; and pumpkin lune (moon-shaped pasta) with butter, sage and grated amaretti.

Batali’s dedication to Italian culinary ideals also makes Babbo a showcase for more-adventurous options that most Americans avoid as a rule, among them warm tripe alla Parmigiana, testa (head cheese) with pickled pearl onions and thyme vinaigrette, and lamb’s brains francobolli with lemon and sage.

“In Italy they always used the whole animal and they celebrate the whole animal,” Batali says, allowing that guests who arrive in search of staples such as penne alla vodka are unlikely to be swayed to order tripe. “It’s very easy just to sell a steak or chop or rib in America, but in our opinion it’s a lot more fun to use things that are not necessarily more challenging, but less often used. We sell the heck out of them.”

The menu guides guests to dine in multicourse Italian style (about 90% choose to do so), separating selections into antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci and formaggi. Two tasting menus also change nightly, one featuring a unique lineup of five pastas plus two desserts and the other a more traditional seven-course dégustation.

For both tasting and à la carte fare, Pastry Chef Gina DePalma creates predesserts to smoothly transition diners’ palates from savory to sweet. One night might bring a few bites of pear or lime bavarese (Bavarian cream), another a tiny disc of house-made mozzarella with cara cara oranges, olive oil and sea salt.

Cellar Sensitivity
Dessert, entrée or antipasto, no dish at Babbo is complete without the fruits of the vine. If the kitchen is Batali’s playing field, the wine cellar belongs to Bastianich, an oenophile of the highest degree who owns two Italian wineries and tapped his lifelong devotion to craft one of the country’s most serious and most imitated wine programs.

Between Wine Director Lynch and two more full-time staff, a pair of sommeliers are on the floor at all times to guide diners through the 1,100-label, all-Italian list that is heavy on Piedmontese varietals such as Barolo and Barbaresco. They serve selections by the bottle or in quartinos (quarter liters), a practice Bastianich says elevates the experience by letting guests sample wines often not available by the glass. Priming stemware—rinsing it with a small amount of wine from the bottle before service to eliminate variables such as smells, soaps and minerals—also is standard procedure, further cementing Babbo’s identity as a true enoteca.

“Wine permeates the whole place. It just exudes a wine essence,” Bastianich says. “At the Italian table, food and wine are together, linked and inseparable.”

  • Asparagus-and-Ricotta Ravioli
  • Warm Tripe alla Parmigiana
  • Saffron Panna Cotta

A Taste of Babbo

House-made salumi with cipolle Modenese and Babbo olives
Pig foot Milanese with rice beans and arugula

Mint “love letters” pasta with spicy lamb sausage
Gnocchi with braised oxtail

Duck with savoy cabbage, speck and brovada
Grilled pork chop with sweet-and-sour onions, duck bacon and membrillo vinegar

Saffron panna cotta with vanilla-scented mango and mango sorbetto
Chocolate hazelnut cake with orange sauce and hazelnut gelato

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