Back in the beginning of the year, I had compiled a list of eateries I pledged to visit in 2008. 10 months, and two trips later, and I am finally prepared to discuss my larger-than-life experiences at Mario Batali’s epic Babbo.
I am compelled to recant the story of this
That said, just a stone’s throw beyond the shady sights and silly sounds of MacDougal St, this exceptionally elusive eatery has for a decade, remained an oasis of acuity thriving in surroundings coveted historically for their obscurity. A trip through nearby
Let it be known that before you can enjoy the toothsome treasures of Babbo, you actually have to get in to Babbo – and that requires a reservation, which in case you weren’t aware, is nearly impossible to come by. As one of the most coveted tables in the City, booking a table at this bastion of Batali brawn requires determination, a dose of luck, and what has to be some sort of divine intervention. If you can break through the ever-busy reservation line (which took 20 minutes of constant redialing to accomplish on both occasions) while remembering the well-documented 30-day policy, you will emerge victorious, exhausted, and most of all, hungry. But I can tell you, it’s well worth it.
Along a picturesque sliver of Waverly place, half-way between the sempiternal honking and hollering of
Inside, rich crème-colored walls, a svelte mahogany bar, and a vaulted ceiling, together, govern the front of the house which is part wine bar, part waiting area that becomes cramped rather quickly as the hour approaches. A confident, grown-up feel should be your first clue to this fine establishment’s historic role as the self-made eldest child in the ever-growing family of bustling Batali establishments. Clearly, it is this certain air of free-spirited sensibility that attracts moonstruck couples, established professionals, and devout foodies alike. Still, dim lighting mixed with loud rock music takes a back seat to even louder conversation, conjuring, quite perfectly, that classic “Batali” ambiance, which at Babbo, remains a healthful reminder that just because you’re mature and have a few bucks in your pocket, doesn’t mean you’re enslaved to stuffy dining rooms, table-side violinists, and a uniformed servers. At Babbo, only the food is livelier than the people.
The semi-cluttered front graduates to a more open set arrangement in a back room anchored by a regal staircase that splits the room into two levels, the downstairs being a bit more casual than the second floor.
But on to food.
Our meal could not commence quickly enough as a tasty sampling of chickpeas marinated in red pepper-flake-flecked olive oil was a welcoming treat.
Starting things off, I opted for the Cotechino, a seasonal italian delicacy, often served in the winter - especially New Year's Eve, rests on a bed of lentils heavily dressed in sweet and syrupy well-aged balsamic vinegar from
Cotechino fully consumed (and rather quickly at that), the Tortelloni with Dried orange and wild fennel pollen (below), arrives as assembly of delicate, butter-soft packages of tongue-puckering goat cheese every so slightly infused with a hint of citrus orange and a dusting of super subtle fennel pollen. The acidity from the orange and the tang of the cheese eliminate every last memory of what you thought tortelloni, their little siblings, tortellini, should be, or ever will be again in your eyes.
Even more exciting, the Spaghettini with Lobster and Budding chives (below), is definitely one of the top 5 pasta dishes to be had in the City. A heaping portion of thin tubular spaghettini come ensconced in a sanguineous fire red zesty tomato sauce, blessed with large, plump hunks of tender lobster to form a devilishly handsome portrait of pasta spiked with roughly chopped spicy chives that more than finish the job. There is something about all the pasta preparations at not only Babbo, but Lupa and Otto as well, that set these seemingly simple combinations apart from anything else. There is a certain element to Batali’s food, and especially at Babbo, that so effortlessly finds a way to use simple means to achieve an exquisite end and the spaghettini at Babbo could not any more perfect an example.
Reeling from the Primi, the Secondi waste no time making their entrance. The Grilled Guinea Hen (below) is a high rising compilation of the game bird’s juicy, succulent dark meat set atop a bed of sweet stringy spaghetti squash. A crispy well-grilled skin, and an abundance of black truffle vinaigrette round out yet another one of Babbo’s peculiarly perfect plates.
But it gets even better. Lucky for me, Babbo offers one of my all time favorite meals – a double-cut, insanely thick Pork Chop, accompanied by cherry peppers and cipollini. Hewing to my preference that this perfect piece of pig is cooked medium rare, this pork chop embodied everything I love about this classic dish. Tender, silky pork embraces the tart, hot, vinegary red cherry peppers joined by lighly sauteed bell peppers and greens, that altogether, form one of the greatest culinary symphonies ever. I couldn’t have been more pleased with my chop, and for that reason, found myself taking my time to eat it.
That never happens.
An artfully pan seared Sea Bass, veal ragu pasta, and a mind-blowing veal cutlet only further affirm what I’m pretty sure I already knew. Babbo doesn’t miss a beat. And probably never will.
This certainly isn’t the first time someone lauded the subtle yet inescapably enjoyable nuances of the food at Babbo, and yet I still, in some ways, I feel as though many strive to eat here for all the wrong reasons. I suppose there will always be a contingency of poseurs and non-believers whose efforts to assimilate with the who’s who overtly trump their interest in what on the plate in front of them. So be it.
At the same time, I take solace in knowing there are just as many (probably more) out there who appreciate Babbo’s truly remarkable ability to, after a decade, continue to so handily please the palettes of anyone and everyone who’s ever eaten there. The restaurant’s resilience and uncanny ability to remain among the most sought after of meals in
I recently caught up with Mario on my street early in the morning, while on my way to work. Stopped at the corner of MacDougal and Eest 3rd, there I found myself standing next to the man whose restaurants I so dearly enjoyed – whose work and passion I so profusely appreciated. Can it be? Realizing the uniqueness of the moment, I introduced myself as a “huge fan of his work” (the "Ubereater" would've been a bit much). His response, a surprisingly soft-spoken, perhaps indifferent, “Thank You” didn’t deter me from asserting that the Biscotti and Sweet Wine dessert at Lupa is my favorite in all the city. “Thank you” he quietly uttered once again as he made his way across the street, and further from my direction.
"Was it something I said?"
Fine then. Next time, I’ll have to tell him about the pork chop.
110 Waverly Place (Between 6th Ave & MacDougal)
Food: A (if ever there were a restaurant that deserved an A, it's this one)
Service: A (like a well-oiled machine, they keep the meal moving, the food coming, and offer enough interaction to heighten the meal, as opposed to hastening it)
Ambiance: A (casual, but self-respecting as we all should be)