Last night, at long last, I got to taste the dishes that Molto Mario created when opened the doors a dozen years ago. Many have said that of all of Batali’s restaurants, Babbo is where he often took a few more risks and placed interesting dishes on the menu. Babbo was probably at its best ten years ago, when Batali actually would grace the kitchen with his presence, but I am certainly not going to complain, as it was still an exquisite dinner.
Being that Babbo has been open so long, you probably do not have to look far for a review by the Times, or dozens of other blogs, however, I think that is is still a restaurant that is worth experiencing (if you can get a reservation), not just for the food, but to see how Batali’s empire has grown, though technically you’d have to eat at Po too.
Just a few days ago I blogged on the ‘awkward picture,’ the feeling I have when taking pictures at upscale restaurants. Last night, with camera in hand, I was prepared to take pictures. But, through the forces that be, the light was awful and so without a flash, no pictures would be had. Hopefully I can describe the dishes so pictures aren’t necessary (though I know I’m not that good).
Babbo sits on Waverly place in the West Village, just off Washington Square Park. Its quaint and unassuming. As you pull aside the red velvet curtains (literally, not a metaphor) you are greeted by the hostess who takes any coats and quickly zips you off to your table. I was dining with my wife and father-in-law, and it also was his birthday.
Luckily, we were seated upstairs, where the noise level was much lower and a conversation could be had without straining your voice. Aside from noise, the upstairs featured a large sky light and a potted tree in the center. It was very charming and felt quite cozy. Our waiter arrived quickly giving us a run down on the special that was not listed (which I ordered too) and the sommelier arrived just after to provide wine guidance. The wine list here is quite extensive, making it a bit harder to decide. This is also true with the menu which features nearly 12 antipasti, another 10-12 primi and more than than of secondi.
Looking down the menu, I knew it would be a difficult choice. We opted for a slightly large feast. Picking two antipasti, a primi to share (among myself and my father-in-law) while my wife enjoyed her primi, and then two more secondi and another primi for my wife. Thankfully, they were very good about spreading out the courses.
Before our antipasti arrived, we were brought a small amuse-bouche which was spicy chickpeas and toast. The spice was perfectly balanced with the chickpeas and if you were struggling through that, you could eat a small piece of toast (though its not really spicy).
For Antipasti, I ordered the Veal Tongue Vinegrette which was served over a bed of mushrooms and topped with a 3-minute egg. The egg yolk served as sauce to accompany the vinegar of the dressing and provided a very nice balance of that acidity. The tongue was so tender and cut so thin, that you really felt like you were eating a piece of veal. The dish was well crafted and brought a smile to my face. My wife ordered the special braised fennel salad that was served with peaches. Think of thick cuts, crunch tasteless fennel. Now, think of the exact opposite. This dish showcased warm, soft braised fennel in what appeared to be red wine, served with pears.
The Primi (and Primi #1 for my wife) came a little while later, and for the two of us, we split the Stinging-Nettle Fettucine, served with Pancetta and Radicchio. This is an often feature special, and for those wondering what stinging nettle tastes like, I can only compare it too arugula. The fettuccine was made of spinach and they add the nettle to the dough. The sauce was extremely rich and I’m glad that I only had half a portion. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t superb with perfect al dente pasta, with crunchy and smokey pancetta. The radicchio really provided a nice crisp, fresh crunch as well. My wife ordered a special tagliatelle pasta with truffles. Talk about rich. That pasta practically needed its IRA to make sure it was safe. The pasta was thick, yet fluffy. The sauce was rich and decedent, but you couldn’t stop yourself from eating more.
The Secondi. I ordered the special which was braised pork cheeks, braised in apple cider and dark beer, served over cabbage and topped with a fresh apple salad. My wife picked the Pumpkin Lune, which was rich succulent pumpkin ravioli. And the third secondi was the fennel dusted sweetbreads (the best I ever had). My pork cheeks were piled high with the towering julienned apples hoisting themselves atop the pork. Beneath were the, also braised, cabbage. They brought me a steak knife, but I could have cut the pork with a spoon. So tender, bursting with flavor and you really tasted the nodes of apple and beer.
The sweetbreads were pan fried, and had the most perfect crust that was not greasy nor overly thick. This was served duck bacon, sweet and sour onions and an orange vinaigrette. Probably the best item we ordered all night. I wish I could provide pictures here. I had a small taste of the pumpkin ravioli and they too were rich, though the flavor of the pumpkin dialed it down a few notches, making it just right.
Finally, since it was my father in laws birthday, we ordered the pear tart with ginger ice cream. It came with a birthday candle, which was very nice and thoughtful. At this point I was so full that the the docli sort of melted away (in your bellies) from the plate quickly. I do not know how.
Overall, Babbo seems like sort of a rite of passage for new yorkers and non new yorkers. Many view the restaurant as a tourist destination for those that want to taste Molto Mario’s creations, though I do not view it as such. The food here can range from simple elegance to bizarre dishes such as testa. Maybe foodies from around the country often congregate here for a great meal, but that doesn’t stop me, now a local, from coming and enjoying my own meal. Each dish was clearly well crafted and designed to balance boldness with classic Italian preparations. I recommend this place to anyone, the more adventurous the better.