Batali unveils the breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu at Maritima, his new Italian eatery at the Maritime Hotel
Another day, another delicious-sounding menu from the Batali/Bastianich team.
Get ready for a new Mario Batali restaurant.The menu for Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s upcoming mega 474-seat restaurant inside (and outside) the Maritime Hotel in New York has finally been revealed.
The proposed menu was unveiled at a community board meeting. It will include separate breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner menus stuffed with new twists on Italian favorites like Amaretto mascarpone pancakes and eggs in purgatory for breakfast; ravioli al uovo with bottarga (eggs and fish roe ravioli) for brunch; and sea scallops tartare with green tomato marmalade and scottaditta with panelle (lamb chops with fried Sicilian fritters) for lunch and dinner.
The proposed restaurant will have 88 indoor tables, 72 outdoor tables, and a bar, according to the business permit application, and will be located on 9th avenue between 16th and 17th streets. Other menu highlights include Nonna’s fried egg with ricotta on the breakfast menu; rigatoni with Sunday gravy on the brunch menu (because it’s never too early for a proper Italian Sunday dinner); and orecchiette with tripe, and pesto and potato lasagna on the dinner menu.
The Daily Meal has reached out to the Batali and Bastianich team for more information.
Traverse City Restaurants Make Mario Batali’s 9 Favorites List
When Mario Batali recently shared his nine favorite restaurants, he had selections spanning the globe: Italy, New York, Singapore … Who made the list twice? That’s right—Traverse City!
Part-time Northern Michigan resident (he summers at his Leelanau County home in Northport from July to Labor Day) and chef/TV personality extraordinaire, Batali is known for his love of simply prepared, fresh foods featuring local ingredients. Not only does he find his food P.O.V. flourish in his own kitchen when in Northern Michigan thanks to fresh farm stands and local purveyors, he sees it ignite in the kitchens of Traverse City restaurants.
“The chefs involved in the scene celebrate what’s here they’re not trying to be anything they’re not. Now people are coming for gastronomic tourism. All winter I look forward to eating two things: pizza from my wood oven topped with Leelanau Cheese Company’s Raclette and serrano chiles, and cherry pie from Grand Traverse Pie Company,” says Batali. (Leelanau Raclette was named one of the world’s 66 best cheeses! Get cheesy recipes here.)
Eat like an Iron Chef and check out two of Mario Batali’s favorite restaurants in the world, located right here in Traverse City:
The Cooks’ House: “Local sustainable cuisine skillfully prepared and served in Traverse City, in the heart of Northern Michigan wine and dine country.” Located at 115 Wellington Street, Traverse City, 231.946.8700.
Frenchies Famous: French press coffee, espressos, house-made breakfast and lunch including delicious sandwiches so good they’re almost addicting, all in a cozy setting. Tip: the pastrami is a must! Located at 619 Randolph Street, Traverse City, 231.944.1228.
Hear what Mario Batali has to say about the Northern Michigan food scene for himself! Check out MyNorth’s video interview.
Chef Mario Batali's Culinary Road Trip
When award-winning celebrity chef Mario Batali takes a road trip, you can bet gas station beef jerky and giant sodas aren't the only thing on the menu. Mario recently took a trip that any foodie would salivate over—a road trip across Spain with no destination other than a good meal.
Although Oprah and Gayle had their own infamous road trip adventure together, she says Mario's culinary quest is much more her style. "That would really be my dream trip of a lifetime," Oprah says.
Mario is literally eating his way across Spain for the PBS special Spain. On the Road Again. Known for his bold cuisine on Iron Chef America and larger-than-life charm, Mario has six popular cookbooks and has built a restaurant empire with 13 top-rated restaurants.
Mario didn't travel alone—his gal pal Oscar®-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow came along for the ride. Mario says the idea for the show came up while at a dinner party. "I'm talking at this party, and Gwyneth says, 'Well, jeez, don't cut me out of that,'" he says. "And we started to put this whole plan together, and it just kind of hatched."
Although Mario is known for his Italian fare, both he and Gwyneth thought Spain was the perfect location. "I did an exchange in Spain when I was in high school, and Mario lived there in high school. We always talked about how much we love Spain and how people are more familiar with Italy and other countries," Gwyneth says. "We wanted to kind of get in there and break it open and show the world how Spanish people eat and what the life is like because it's such an incredible country."
The road trip went on for many weeks, but Gwyneth says a little film magic was involved so she could still spend time at home with her kids. "They were on a road trip, and I would fly in and do two days and then fly home," she says.
With his ponytail and signature orange Crocs, Mario is easily recognized in New York, the home to eight of his critically acclaimed restaurants. In Spain, however, he says Gwyneth was truly the star. "She speaks with the most beautiful Madridano accent you'll ever hear in your life," he says. "It's beautiful, and everyone that talks to her in Spain falls in love with her."
While traveling from town to town and soaking up the local flavor, Gwyneth says it was easy to stay away from the bad gas station food people typically associate with road trips. "It's more fresh," she says. "They have junk too, but I think they eat in a more rustic kind of brio way."
Of course, nobody's perfect. "In Spain they just love french fries, and actually what you'll see on the show when Gwyneth comes anywhere near french fries—it's like a black hole," Mario says. "They just go in her mouth."
To bring the Spanish flavor back home, Mario and Gwyneth are sharing a few dishes from their cookbook Spain. A Culinary Road Trip, which contains all the recipes they fell in love with while on the road.
"We're making paella, which is probably the most famous dish in all of Spain," Mario says. "In each different region, there are different kinds of paella. I like to think of it as kind of a canvas on which you can paint." Although paella is traditionally thought of as a seafood dish, Mario says you can put whatever you want in it&mdashchicken, rabbit, chorizo&mdashor make it completely vegetarian.
The first step to perfect paella, according to Mario, is to use a paella pan. If you don't have one, he says a sauté pan will suffice. "You're just one step further from excellent paella," he says.
Mario understands that the moms of the world don't have a lot of time to cook or the energy to think of new ideas each and every night. "It's a real serious job, and to keep the kids interested in healthy food is a big thing in America," he says.
Two busy moms, Monique and Maria, are joining Mario via Skype&trade from their home kitchens in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Orlando, Florida, to cook with Mario as he prepares a quick and easy meal. Monique and Maria follow along as Mario cooks Asparagus Alla Plancha, which Mario says means skillet-cooked asparagus, and Flamenquines, a Spanish pork dish.
Flamenquines are pork chops with a little surprise inside&mdashmore pork! Mario uses jamon serrano, but he says you can use prosciutto or whatever you have. "You can put country ham, you can put anything you want in it," he says. "The idea is just to make sure that, in addition to the pork chop, there's a little more pork inside."
With all the time Mario spends in the kitchen, he's come up with a list of things he simply can't live without.
Although homemade pasta seems like it would be an all-day affair, Mario says one of his favorite kitchen appliances makes fresh pasta a breeze. "One of my favorite things is this pasta attachment on your Kitchen Aid mixer which makes making pasta twice as fast and twice as fun," he says. "What you really realize when you have something like that is that fresh pasta is literally eight to 10 minutes away."
Mario's next favorite thing looks like it came from the tool department—a Microplane cheese grater. Mario says the fine grate brings the best out of the cheese. "When you have this kind of cheese over stuff, you don't have to eat so much of the cheese and you get that incredible coverage and that delicate flavor," he says. "When you talk about really good Italian food and really good Spanish food, it's about balance. It's not so much about everything and lots of it. There's just the right amount of everything in the right way, and that's what makes it so good."
In Gwyneth's kitchen, healthy cooking has become a way of life. She says her number one favorite appliance is the Gaggenau steamer. "It's kind of an investment, but honestly, it's the best thing that's in my kitchen," she says. "You can make steamed veggies, fish, rice&mdashit's incredible. We reheat food in it so you don't have to zap it in the microwave."
Gwyneth says she loves to have a glass of wine while she cooks and has found a gizmo that keeps her half-full bottles fresh. "In my house, there's always wine left over," she says. Just place the wine saver on top of the bottle, pump, and the air is sucked out of the bottle. "And then the next day you can have the other half of your bottle of wine," she says.
Giada De Laurentiis Opens Up About Mario Batali&rsquos Sexual Misconduct Allegations
Four months after sexual misconduct allegations emerged against celebrity chef Mario Batali, one of his former Food Network colleagues, Giada De Laurentiis, is opening up about how she reacted to the news &mdash and about the issues women face in the restaurant industry.
Back in December, in separate reports by Eater and the The New York Times, several women came forward saying Batali had touched them inappropriately, and that female employees at the Spotted Pig restaurant would call him the &ldquoRed Menace&rdquo because of his behavior. Batali apologized, saying in a statement, &ldquoAlthough the identities of most of the individuals mentioned in these stories have not been revealed to me, much of the behavior described does, in fact, match up with ways I have acted.&rdquo
Batali stepped away from his company&rsquos operations. He was also fired by ABC&rsquos The Chew, an upcoming Food Network series was shelved, and his products were removed from the food-store chain Eataly. Now, he is reportedly volunteering abroad while he figures out his next move.
During an episode of Eater&rsquos Upsell podcast, De Laurentiis said Batali had been a mentor to her when she was establishing a restaurant in Las Vegas. Then, cohost Amanda Kludt asked her how things have been in the months since the allegations emerged. De Laurentiis said the allegations didn&rsquot &ldquocome as a huge shock,&rdquo even though she didn&rsquot have similar experiences to his accusers, but she was still sad to hear them:
De Laurentiis had a similar message for TMZ immediately after the allegations surfaced. &ldquoIt&rsquos all very sad, but you know what, what has to happen, happens, and I hope that everybody feels better,&rdquo she said. &ldquoIt&rsquos obviously a time of cleansing.&rdquo
During the podcast, she also noted that women, both in and out of the food industry, have an opportunity to work together to make change &mdash and also had an uplifting message about basic human decency:
On a recent Friday night, the scene at Babbo, the downtown New York restaurant, seems much like one that’s played out on countless weekends since chef Mario Batali and his partner, Joe Bastianich, opened it in the summer of 1998. The place throbs with a high-volume soundtrack of 1970s rock stalwarts like Heart and Aerosmith. A line of customers wait for seats, peering hopefully into the main dining area, where all the white-cloth-topped tables are occupied. The menu still features Batali’s surrealistically titled dishes, including Spicy Two Minute Calamari Sicilian Lifeguard Style and Mint Love Letters, reminders of the day when Babbo was the city’s most exclusive place to eat and guests could scan the room and see Madonna, unexpectedly tiny and dressed in white, at a corner table or George Clooney out for a date with his wife, Amal or Bill Clinton holding court, surrounded by political and financial intimates.
Yet Babbo isn’t as bustling as it was before December 2017, when numerous women accused Batali of sexually abusing them and he became perhaps not the first, but certainly the most famous chef to fall from his pedestal as the #MeToo movement swept his industry. In the pre-scandal days, a crush of black cars waited outside the restaurant. Tonight, there’s a single SUV. As for recognizable faces, there are none in the room. By 9 p.m., the crowd, older than it was in the restaurant’s heyday, has begun to thin.
Even so, Babbo’s employees are ebullient. In March, Bastianich announced that he and his sister, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, who also manages the business of their mother Lidia Bastianich, a celebrity chef in her own right, had reached an agreement to purchase Batali’s stake in their empire, which now comprises 16 restaurants𠅍own from 22 before the scandal—spread from New York to California. “He no longer profits from the restaurants or is involved in any way, shape, or form,” Manuali says.
As soon as the deal was announced, business at the restaurants improved, say Batali’s former employees and partners. 𠇊lmost immediately, the phone started ringing,” says Scott Woltz, Babbo’s wine director. Andy Nusser, a partner with Batali and Bastianich at several restaurants, sounds equally relieved. “It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for,” he says. “It’s like a cloud lifting.”
What goes unsaid is the obvious: A significant number of customers refused to support places from which Batali might profit. His departure is a test for what happens when a business loses its figurehead, especially someone who embodied the brand as much as Batali did. There’s little question that once his name was blackened, he became a drag on his former establishments. But to what extent will diners find his former restaurants compelling without him?
So far, the signs seem encouraging. But the terms of the agreement are more complicated than he and his family have publicly acknowledged. A document filed with the New York Department of State in early March indicates that Bastianich has pledged to Batali his interests in Babbo LLC, which the former partners have identified in court records as Babbo itself, as well as three buildings housing restaurants. Bastianich says that was part of the settlement. In other words, the disgraced culinary star isn’t entirely out of the picture. There’s even a scenario in which he could return.
On a quieter evening, over a dinner of roasted octopus and spinach pappardelle with local duck and mushrooms at Felidia, her mother’s restaurant in Manhattan’s Midtown East neighborhood, Manuali is eager to dispense with Batali and his infamy, which she refers to as “the situation.” She says his former restaurants, many of which had been run without his day-to-day input for some time, will do just fine now that he’s gone. “There’s definitely been a bounce-back effect,” says Manuali, who’s blond and energetic. “We’re very, very happy about that.”
A former art history professor, Manuali has managed three restaurants bearing her mother’s name—in New York, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh𠅊nd written eight cookbooks with her. She sounds excited but also nervous about overseeing an operation as large as the one Batali and her brother created. She stresses that she wasn’t involved in the 16 restaurants before the settlement and defers questions about the scandal and its impact to her brother. After dessert, she excuses herself and heads off to tour some of the former Batali establishments.
“There’s definitely been a bounce-back effect,” says Manuali. “We’re very, very happy about that”
Bastianich is more forthcoming about the Batali blowback. In a telephone interview from his car in Italy, he says the last year or so has been painful. Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. cut its ties with the partners, forcing them to close two of their restaurants in Singapore casinos and three more in Nevada. In New York, Bastianich and Batali shuttered La Sirena, a two-year-old Chelsea restaurant that Bastianich says struggled before Batali’s fall and then became untenable once his name turned radioactive.
Now, Bastianich says, the bleeding is over. He points to Otto, a pizzeria designed to look like an Italian train station, which he and Batali opened in 2003 near New York University’s Greenwich Village campus. “NYU had blacklisted us,” Bastianich says. “The students are back. So, slowly, but surely, things are starting to pick up again.”
For more than two decades, Bastianich and Batali were one of the most successful teams in the restaurant trade. A former Merrill Lynch bond trader who abandoned Wall Street for the restaurant world, Bastianich befriended Batali in the 1990s after the chef made his mark in New York by opening Pó, a compact, fondly remembered West Village establishment. Pó was a sensation, and not just because the food was great. Batali was destined for stardom beyond the kitchen. The Food Network was taking off, and he became one of its early stars with the show Molto Mario, on which he taught guests like R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and the Gyllenhaal siblings the ins and outs of cooking Italian food. For just about anyone who aspired to go beyond warming up a jar of Ragu pasta sauce, Molto Mario was tantalizing.
In 1998, the pair unveiled Babbo, with Batali in the kitchen and Bastianich presiding over the front of the house. Restaurant critics marveled at Batali’s deployment of what were then considered left-field ingredients such as testa, better known as head cheese, and offal. They also admired Bastianich’s all-Italian wine list and his idiosyncratic approach to sales. “ ‘Try it,’ you hear him urging customers, ‘if you don’t like it, I’ll drink it myself,’ ” the New York Times reported.
The success of Babbo enabled the partners to open more places: fancy pizzerias in New York, Connecticut, Boston, and Los Angeles a Vegas burger joint a casual Roman trattoria in the West Village and more fine-dining establishments, the most famous being Del Posto in New York’s Meatpacking District, which earned a rare four-star rating from the Times. They were linked together by a management services company known as Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, but the restaurants themselves were separate LLCs involving a variety of different partners.
𠇎very restaurant opens based on a real estate deal,” Bastianich wrote
The duo also teamed up with Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti in 2010 to open the first American outpost of his Disneyland version of an Italian market, with seven restaurants, a rooftop beer garden, a coffee bar, and a grocery store. In 2012, Bastianich told the Times that Eataly generated a third of his organization’s $250 million annual revenue. Soon Eataly spread to Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, and a second New York Eataly opened. (Bastianich declines to talk finances now.)
Batali took as many chances with his personal brand as he did with his food. He became one of the hosts of ABC’s The Chew, a daytime culinary talkathon. He wrote Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style, which he described as “the essential cookbook” for fans of the races. Even as he worked his common touch, the literati fawned over him. Batali was lionized by the New Yorker’s Bill Buford in the best-selling book Heat, which recounted the writer’s adventures as an apprentice in Babbo’s kitchen. Jim Harrison, the late novelist-poet with a side hustle as a food writer, described a dinner at Babbo as sily the best meal I’ve ever had in an American restaurant” in his book The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand.
Bastianich, too, became a star. Once a tubby second banana who was as terse as his partner was voluble, he slimmed down, becoming a marathon runner who still drank a bottle of good wine daily but was also passionate about red Gatorade. He produced a profane and highly readable memoir entitled Restaurant Man, in which he recounted the business moves behind many of the restaurants he and Batali had opened. In particular he described how they𠆝 acquired some of the buildings in which their eateries were located, including the former carriage house in which Babbo is situated. 𠇎very restaurant opens based on a real estate deal,” he wrote.
Batali’s behavior, long an open secret in the restaurant world, would bring the two-decade partnership to a close. Heat ends with Buford and Batali at Lupa, the chef’s West Village trattoria, concluding a drinking binge fueled by at least 10 bottles of wine. Through the haze, Buford recalls Batali telling a waitress, “It’s not fair that I have this view all to myself when you bend over. For dessert, would you take off your blouse for the others?” An even more chilling portrait of the chef emerged in December 2017, when the website Eater reported that Batali had groped women over the years. Several months later, CBS’s 60 Minutes interviewed a waitress who said she𠆝 been partying with the chef one night and passed out. She awoke at dawn on the floor, suspecting she𠆝 been drugged, and found scratches on her leg and semen on her skirt.
Batali strongly denied that he𠆝 assaulted this employee, but he acknowledged that he𠆝 behaved abominably with women and begged forgiveness. Bastianich eventually issued his own carefully worded mea culpa. “While I never saw or heard of Mario groping an employee, I heard him say inappropriate things to our employees,” he said. “Though I criticized him for it from time to time, I should have done more. I neglected my responsibilities as I turned my attention away from the restaurants. People were hurt, and for this I am deeply sorry.”
With the scandal at full boil, Batali’s partners were eager to get rid of him. Eataly set out to acquire what it describes as “Mr. Batali’s minority interest in Eataly USA,” a process that has yet to be finalized. Bastianich needed to do the same, but it wasn’t so simple. “In the real world, you can’t force anyone to sell anything they own or snatch it away from them,” he says. “This is the reality of having to do a deal like this. You have to reach an agreement where, within the context of everything, he’s willing to sell and you’re willing to buy.”
Two days after Bastianich and Manuali said they𠆝 severed ties with Batali, a financial statement filed with New York authorities suggested otherwise
Bastianich and Manuali decline to discuss the details of their March settlement with Batali, preferring to talk about the future. They’re preparing to open a restaurant in the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, run by chef Nancy Silverton, who’s also a partner in five other West Coast operations that were part of the onetime Batali and Bastianich empire. “We’re trying to get some things kicking again in Singapore,” Bastianich says. “I just got back from London, looking for locations. So onward and upward.”
The Secret of Excess
The first glimpse I had of what Mario Batali’s friends had described to me as the “myth of Mario” was during a weekend in January last year, when I invited him to dinner with some friends. Batali, the chef and co-owner of Babbo, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, is such a proficient cook that he is rarely invited to people’s homes for a meal, and he went out of his way to be a grateful guest. He arrived with a jar of quince-flavored grappa, which he’d made himself (the fruit renders it almost drinkable) a bottle of nocino, which he’d also made (same principle, but with walnuts) three bottles of wine and a white, dense slab of lardo—literally, the raw “lardy” back of a very fat pig, which he’d cured with herbs and salt. I was a reasonably comfortable cook, keen but a little chaotic, and I was delighted to have Batali in the kitchen, if only for his pedagogical interventions. He has been cooking for a cable-television audience for more than six years and has an uninhibited way of telling you that only a moron would wrap the meat in foil after cooking it. The evening, by then, had been effectively taken over. Not long into it, Batali had cut very thin slices of the lardo and, with a flourish of intimacy, laid them individually on our tongues, whispering that we needed to let the lardo melt to appreciate what the pig had eaten just before he died. The pig, evidently, had been five hundred and seventy-five pounds, almost three times the size of a normal pig, and, near the end, had lived exclusively on walnuts, apples, and cream. (“It’s the best song sung in the key of pig,” Batali said.) No one at dinner that evening had knowingly eaten pure fat before (“At the restaurant, I tell the waiters to call it prosciutto bianco, or else people won’t touch it”), and by the time he had persuaded us to a third helping my heart was racing and we were all very thirsty.
On trips to Italy made with his Babbo co-owner, Joe Bastianich, Batali has been known to share an entire case of wine during dinner, and, while we didn’t drink anything like that, we were all infected by his live-very-hard-for-now approach and had more than was sensible. I don’t know. I don’t really remember. There was also the grappa and the nocino, and one of my last recollections is of Batali around three in the morning—back arched, eyes closed, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, his red Converse high-tops pounding the floor—playing air guitar to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Batali had recently turned forty, and I remember thinking that it was a long time since I’d seen a grown man playing air guitar. He then found the soundtrack for “Buena Vista Social Club,” tried to salsa with one of the guests (who promptly fell over a sofa), tried to dance with her boyfriend (who was unresponsive), and then put on a Tom Waits CD and sang along as he went into the kitchen, where, with a machinelike speed, he washed the dishes and mopped the floor. He reminded me that we had an arrangement for the next day—he’d got tickets to a New York Giants game, courtesy of the commissioner of the N.F.L., who had just eaten at Babbo—and disappeared with three of my friends. They ended up at Marylou’s, in the Village—in Batali’s description, “a wise-guy joint where you get anything at any time of night, none of it good.”
It was nearly daylight when he got home, the doorman of his apartment building told me the next day as the two of us tried to get Batali to wake up: the N.F.L. commissioner’s driver was waiting outside. When Batali was roused, forty-five minutes later, he was momentarily perplexed, standing in his doorway in his underwear and wondering why I was there. Batali has a remarkable girth, and it was a little startling to see him so clad, but within minutes he had transformed himself into the famous television chef: shorts, high-tops, sunglasses, his red hair pulled back into a ponytail. He had become Molto Mario—the many-layered name of his cooking program, which, in one of its senses, means, literally, Very Mario (that is, an intensified Mario, an exaggerated Mario, and an utterly over-the-top Mario)—and a figure whose renown I didn’t fully appreciate until, as guests of the commissioner, we were allowed on the field before the game. Fans of the New York Giants are happy caricatures (the ethic is old-fashioned blue-collar, even if they’re corporate managers), and I was surprised by how many of them recognized the ponytailed chef, who stood on the field facing them, arms crossed over his chest, and beaming. “Hey, Molto!” one of them shouted. “What’s cooking, Mario?” “Mario, make me a pasta!” On the East Coast, “Molto Mario” is on twice a day (at eleven-thirty in the morning and five-thirty in the afternoon). I had a complex picture of the metropolitan working male—policeman, Con Ed worker, plumber—rushing home to catch lessons in how to braise his broccoli rabe and get just the right forked texture on his homemade orecchiette. (Batali later told me that when the viewing figures for his show first came in they were so overwhelmingly male that the producers thought they weren’t going to be able to carry on.) I stood back, with one of the security people, taking in the spectacle (by now a crowd was chanting “Molto! Molto! Molto!”)— this proudly round man, whose whole manner said, “Dude, where’s the party?”
“I love this guy,” the security man said. “Just lookin’ at him makes me hungry.”
Mario Batali arrived in New York in 1992, when he was thirty-one. He had two hundred dollars, a duffelbag, and a guitar. Since then, he has become the city’s most widely recognized chef and, almost single-handedly, has changed the way people think about Italian cooking in America. The food he prepares at Babbo, which was given three stars by the Times when the restaurant opened, in 1998, is characterized by intensity—of ingredients, of flavor—and when people talk of it they use words like “heat” and “vibrancy,” “exaggeration” and “surprise.” Batali is not thought of as a conventional cook, in the business of serving food for profit he’s in the much murkier enterprise of stimulating outrageous appetites and satisfying them aggressively. (In Batali’s language, appetites blur: a pasta made with butter “swells like the lips of a woman aroused,” roasted lotus roots are like “sucking the toes of the Shah’s mistress,” and just about anything powerfully flavored—the first cherries of the season, the first ramps, a cheese from Piedmont—”gives me wood.”) Chefs are regular visitors and are subjected to extreme versions of what is already an extreme experience. “We’re going to kill him,” Batali said to me with maniacal glee as he prepared a meal for Wylie Dufresne, the former chef of 71 Clinton, who had ordered a seven-course tasting menu, to which Batali then added a lethal-seeming number of impossible-to-resist extra courses. The starters (variations, again, in the key of pig) included a plate of lonza (the cured backstrap from one of Batali’s cream-apple-and-walnut-fattened pigs) a plate of coppa (made from the same creamy pig’s shoulder) a fried pig foot a porcini mushroom, stuffed with garlic and thyme, and roasted with a piece of Batali’s own pancetta (cured pig belly) wrapped around its stem plus (“just for the hell of it”) tagliatelle topped with guanciale (cured pig jowls), parsnips, and black truffle. A publisher who was fed by Batali while talking to him about booking a party came away vowing to eat only soft fruit and water until he’d recovered: “This guy knows no middle ground. It’s just excess on a level I’ve never known before—it’s food and drink, food and drink, food and drink, until you start to feel as though you’re on drugs.” This spring, Mario was trying out a new motto, borrowed from the writer Shirley O. Corriher: “Wretched excess is just barely enough.”
Batali grew up outside Seattle. His mother, Marilyn, is half French Canadian, half English (it’s from her line that Batali gets the flaming-red hair and the fair complexion), and his father, Armandino, a former Boeing executive, is Italian. In 1975, Armandino was posted to Europe, to supervise the procurement of airplane parts made overseas, and moved his family to Spain. Already, Mario was, in the words of his sister Gina, “pushing the limits.” For Batali, Madrid, in the years after Franco’s death, was a place of exhilarating license: bars with no minimum age, hash hangouts, and flirtations with members of the world’s oldest profession. He was caught growing marijuana on the roof of the Madrid apartment building where the family lived, the first incident of what became a theme: Batali was later expelled from his dorm in college, suspected of dealing, and, later still, there was some trouble outside Tijuana, which landed him in jail. (The time in Madrid evokes a memory of one of the first dishes Batali remembers preparing, a late-night panino with caramelized onions, cow’s-milk cheese, and paper-thin slices of chorizo: “The best stoner munch you can imagine. Me and my brother Dana were just classic stoner kids, we were so happy.”)
“Listen, buster, I didn’t sit on your hard little egg in the blazing sun for six weeks just to hear you say, ‘Ewww, I don’t like regurgitated yak carcass.”
When Batali returned to the United States, in 1978, to attend Rutgers University, in New Jersey, he believed that his future was in Iberian finance (“I wanted to be a Spanish banker—I loved the idea of making a lot of money and living a luxurious life in Madrid”), and his improbable double major was business management and Spanish theatre. After being expelled from his dorm, he got work as a dishwasher, at a popular student restaurant called Stuff Yer Face one can’t help feeling that, in the name alone, destiny was calling. Gina Batali agrees—”This is when Mario became Mario”—although the evidence, a photograph of the young chef with an unrecognizably narrow waist, suggests that Mario didn’t become Mario for another few inches. Batali was rapidly promoted—to prep cook (preparing the food for the evening chefs), then line cook (working at one “station” in a “line” of stations, making one thing)—and still claims the record for most pizzas made in an hour. The life at Stuff Yer Face was fast, sexy (“The most booooootiful waitresses in town”), and happily recreational. (“I don’t want to come off as a big druggie, but a guy would bring a pizza pan turned upside down with lines of crank on it.”) And when, in his junior year, he went to a career conference, attended by representatives from major corporations, Batali realized that he would never be a banker. He was going to be a chef.
“I had a natural affinity for the kitchen, and my mother and grandmother had always told me that I should be a cook. In fact, when I was preparing my college applications my mother suggested cooking school, but I said, ‘Ma, that’s too gay. I don’t want to go to cooking school—that’s for fags.’ “ But five years later Batali showed up for his first day at the Cordon Bleu in London.
His father, still working with Boeing, was now based in England. Gina Batali was there, too, and recalls seeing her brother in the early mornings, when he returned after being out all night, having attended classes during the day and then worked at a pub. The pub was the Six Bells, on the King’s Road, in Chelsea. Mario was bartending at the “American bar” (“I had no idea what I was doing”), when a high-priced dining room opened in the back, and a chef was hired to run it, a Yorkshireman named Marco Pierre White. Mario quit cooking school, already bored by the pace, and was hired to be the new chef’s slave.
Today, Marco Pierre White is regarded as one of the most influential chefs in Britain, and it’s an extraordinary fortuity that these two men found themselves working together, both in their early twenties, in a tiny pub kitchen. Batali didn’t understand what he was witnessing: his professional experience had been making strombolis in New Brunswick. “I assumed I was seeing what everyone else knew already I didn’t feel like someone on the cusp of a revolution. And yet I could see that this was a guy who really looked at preparing food from outside the box. He was a genius on the plate. I’d never worked on presentation. I just put shit on the plate.” He described White making a deep-green basil purée, and a white butter sauce, and swirling the green sauce in one direction and the white sauce in the other, and drawing a swerving line down the middle of the plate. “I had never seen anyone draw fucking lines with two sauces.” White would order Batali to follow him to market (“I was his whipping boy. ‘Yes, master,’ I’d answer. ‘Whatever you say’ “), and they would return with game birds or ingredients for some of the most improbable dishes ever to be served in an English public house: écrevisses in a reduced lobster sauce, oysters with caviar, and roasted ortolan—the rare and tiny game bird, served virtually breathing, its innards to be gulped down like a raw crustacean.
According to Batali, White was so intuitive and physical that he could do things to food that no one had done before. “He made a hollandaise by beating the sauce so vigorously that it began to froth up and become something else—it was like a sabayon.” He was forever chopping things, reducing them, and making Batali force them through a sieve—”which was, of course, no bigger than a tea strainer, because it was a pub and that was all he had, and I’d spend my whole day crushing some chunky shellfish reduction through this tiny thing, ramming it over and over again with a wooden spoon.” White is also said to have been spectacularly abusive. “You know, we were just two guys in the kitchen,” Batali recalls, “and I’m not cooking the fries right, according to him, or the zucchini, or whatever it was, and he tells me to sauté the snow peas instead, while he’s over in the corner doing some dramatic thing with six crayfish, and he suddenly calls out, ‘Bring me the snow peas now!’ and I duly bring them over. ‘Here are the snow peas, master,’ but he doesn’t like the look of them. ‘They are wrong, you moron. They are overcooked, you goddam fucking navvy,’ but of course I didn’t understand what ‘navvy’ meant, and I’d say something like ‘Navvy this, navvy that, if you don’t like my snow peas then make them yourself,’ which made him even angrier.” Batali says White threw a risotto at him: “He was a mean motherfucker.” Batali stuck it out for four months, and then, “frightened for my life,” he dumped salt in a beurre blanc and walked out.
Batali is a person of overpowering self-confidence, but in White’s kitchen his self-confidence failed him. He would like to dismiss the man, but he can’t—after all, White is the person who showed him what a chef could be—and, as a result, White is both wholly loathed by Batali and wholly respected. Even now, nearly twenty years later, you can hear in Batali’s account a nagging irritation at his failure to charm or work with someone who understood so much about the potential of food—that “it was a wide-open game.” From White, Batali learned the virtues of presentation, stamina, and intense, athletic cooking. And from White he learned a hatred of most things French. (White’s pub menu was in French.) He has an injunction against reduced sauces—boiling a liquid like meat broth down to a syrup. (“If you can run your finger through it and an impression is left behind, then it’s not me, it’s too French.”) And a prohibition on tantrums: “It’s so old school, so made for the movies.” But mainly Batali learned how much he had to learn. Provoked by White’s command in the kitchen, he embarked on a grand tour of the grandest restaurants in Europe, tracing White’s skills, like some-one following a genealogical line, back to their origins: La Tour d’Argent, in Paris Le Moulin de Mougins, on the Côte d’Azur the Waterside Inn, outside London. (“You learn the essentials of a place in a few months. If you want to learn them properly, you stay a year, to cook through the seasons, but I was in a hurry.”) At times, he was doing highly tedious tasks (squeezing duck carcasses for twelve hours, to get the extra ounce of juice that went into a duck stock). But he knew the approach was correct. “You learn by working in the kitchen,” Batali told me. “Not going to cookery school. That’s how it’s done.”
That’s what I wanted to do—to work in the Babbo kitchen, as Mario’s slave.
I was accepted—Mario told me, after I put the proposal to him—on “a trial basis.” He said, “The question is space. Is there room for another body?” There wasn’t, but somehow I squeezed in. I would do a night or two “plating pasta,” and a day in the “prep kitchen,” preparing food for the evening. The prep kitchen was run by Elisa Sarno, and she was expecting me at 7 A.M. But a few days before, on January 26th, I was invited to attend a kitchen meeting.
About twenty people showed up. In April, Mario was publishing “The Babbo Cookbook.” The restaurant, he said, was about to come under more scrutiny. There would be television crews, bigger crowds, and restaurant critics, asking if Babbo was as good as it was when it opened, four years earlier. Because the book revealed “all our secrets,” the menu would change, and Batali invited people to propose specials (“a classic recipe done in our way”) and suggested reading old cookbooks for ideas. He reiterated the kitchen’s principles: that we’re here “to buy food, fix it up, and sell it at a profit—that’s what we do” that consistency is essential (“If someone has a great dish and returns to have it again, and you don’t serve it to him in exactly the same way, then you’re a dick”) and that the success of Babbo, “the best Italian restaurant in America,” arises out of its style—”More feminine than masculine: people should think there are grandmothers in the back, preparing their dinner.”
There was a labor issue—kitchen rage. A chef had just left because he couldn’t control his temper. He banged pots, threw utensils, “poisoned the kitchen with his anger.” The behavior wasn’t to be tolerated. But implicit in the discussion was an acknowledgment of the extreme stress of being a cook during the dinner service.
When I presented myself to Elisa, a handsome, athletic woman in her forties, whom I’d met before, and liked, she didn’t seem all that happy to see me. I discovered that I was witnessing her kitchen personality—a tough, no-nonsense brusqueness—developed in part because she was a woman of authority dealing with men rarely prepared to cede it to her. She had been at Babbo since it opened, originally working as a line cook, but she hated the pressure and the hours, and was happier here, in what she treated as her own kitchen.
“That’s my little brother. He’s all messed up on Skittles and Moutain Dew.”
I put on an apron and a jacket, and was given a tour. One corner of the kitchen is taken up by the “walk-in”—a refrigerated closet with floor-to-ceiling shelves—and another corner is given over to dishwashing. Pots, pans, and various plastic containers are stored overhead. Elisa was describing each one according to its size, but I was distracted by the dishwasher, who was assaulting a giant pot with a high-pressure gadget that was spraying water powerfully, in unpredictable directions. “These are the one-quarts,” she said, “and here are the two-quarts, four-quarts, six-quarts, and eight, all with their own color-coded lids hotel pans and half-hotels are there, along with the sheet trays and half-sheet trays.” The containers, I learned, were the medium of the prep kitchen—everything went into them so that it could be fetched in the evening—and great weight was expressed in questions like: Is this (chicken feet, say, or a quantity of beef cheeks) to be put in a six-quart or will it fit into a four? I was wondering is this what you learn in cooking school, what a hotel pan is, when Elisa stopped, suddenly realizing that I wasn’t carrying any knives. “Where did you put your knives?” she asked.
“Oh, my God. O.K. Bring them next week.” And then she muttered to herself, “God, I hate lending people my knives.”
She led me into the walk-in, talking fast now, wanting to get on with her day. “This is where we put stuff for the grilling station”—she pointed to a shelf packed with green-lidded containers, indistinguishable from a dozen other shelves with green-lidded containers. “This is the pasta shelf. This is the pantry shelf. Oh, yes, and this is the masking tape. Everything is labelled and dated. Where’s your pen? You didn’t bring a pen?”
Vegetables were in the back. Fish were stacked on the floor in Styrofoam crates, delivered before I arrived, some giant silver Mediterranean thing.
“Time to bone the ducks. Come.”
There were three boxes of ducks.
“Wipe the counter, wet a cloth—do you remember where the cloths are? Get a cutting board, an eight-quart and two four-quarts, a hotel pan”—which ones were the hotel pans?—”and parchment paper. You get sheets from the pastry station. The four-quarts will be for the gizzards. Here, take one of my knives. Will you bring your knives next week?”
“Unpack the duck from the top, so you don’t get blood all over you. Remove the gizzards. They go into a container. Cut off the legs to make a confit, but first chop off the knobby bit at the bottom with a cleaver—use this,” she said, handing me a giant tomahawk thing—”and then remove the breast. You do know how to bone a duck, don’t you?”
“Well, I think, yes, I do. I mean, I’ve done it.” But when? Was that in 1993?
“And you know about the oyster?”
“The oyster?” I asked, and my mind did a calculation. Duck, an animal with wings: fowl. Oyster, molecular thing without wings: mollusk. Ducks don’t have oysters oysters don’t have ducks. “The oyster?” I repeated.
“Yes, it’s the nugget of meat you don’t want to lose. It’s here,” she said, swiftly cutting the breast in half and whipping her knife around the thigh. She had an appealingly easy manner with the knife, which seemed to involve no effort, and the meat instantaneously cleaved in two. I was thinking, I want to learn how to do that, and didn’t quite get the location of the duck oyster—was it in front of the thigh or behind it?—when she was off a deliveryman had appeared.
I looked around the kitchen. In front of me was a wall of cookers, with vats of something boiling on top. The pastry chefs were beside me, cutting up pineapples. Behind me, two guys were making pasta. On the floor was a giant mixer, knocking around a mound of dough. It was seven-fifteen in the morning.
I picked up a duck, removed the wings, and hunted around for that oyster. I felt an obligation to honor this bird in my hand, by insuring that its thigh oyster found its way onto the plate. But where was the little fucker?
As I slowly got through my first ducks, I stacked up their parts on my cutting board. The idea was that you should whip through each one, slice, slice, slice, just as Elisa had done—the knife doing that effortless thing, all edge, no pressure, the meat opening up like magic—and drop each bit into its appropriate container. But I wasn’t sure I was getting it right. I stacked up the thighs on one corner, hoping to hide my first, hacked-up experiments.
Meanwhile, Elisa was opening boxes. (“Frozen pig cheeks,” she was saying to the deliveryman. “Frozen is no good for me.”) The deliveryman didn’t reply he was staring at me. (“Did you count these lamb shanks?” she was now saying. “It’s never the number you say—I can’t run a kitchen if I don’t know the number of lamb shanks.”) His stare was making me very self-conscious.
I looked across at one of the cooks, Cesar, who was doing something with quails. The deliveryman hadn’t moved—was he actually shaking his head?—when, somehow, I dragged the blade of Elisa’s knife, smoothly and delicately, across the top of my forefinger, from behind the first knuckle to the nail. There was a moment: did I do what I think I did? Yes. And the top of my finger erupted in a gush of red blood.
“Did you just slice yourself?” Elisa asked, breaking off her lamb-shank count, and in a tone that said, You’ve been here half an hour, and this is what you’ve done?
“Yes,” I said, “but not to worry.” I wrapped my hand in the nearest soiled cloth. “I do this all the time. You should look at my fingers. A road map of scars and nicks. I think I need glasses. Near-sighted. Or farsighted. Both, actually. Really, it’s what I do.”
“Do you need to go to the hospital?” It sounded like an accusation.
I shook my head, a little worried by her worry. There was a lot of blood.
“Band-Aids are in the refrigerator,” she said. “You’ll need to wear a rubber glove. The Band-Aids won’t stay dry.”
I retreated to the dining room, crunched up the wound with a criss-crossing of Band-Aids, sank the thing into a rubber glove, and returned. It was nearly nine o’clock, and my cutting board had a modest square of about five inches of work space. The rest of it was stacked with pieces of duck.
And so I resumed. Chop, trim, wrestle, pop, thwack. I cleared my board. And, as I did, the Band-Aids started to work themselves loose, and the clear synthetic glove started to expand and droop, filling up like a water balloon with my blood. If I did this again, and sliced off a little bit of this glove, it was going to be a mess. But I was falling behind, and Elisa was looking at me.
She picked up a thigh. To me, it seemed I’d got the oyster. In front and back, wherever the thing was, there was plenty of meat. That wasn’t the problem. “There’s too much fat,” she said, trimming it off, and then added, as if she’d failed to mention a crucial instruction, “You are aware that these are going to be served to people.”
I came to like Elisa she was, I realized, after a few weeks under her tough tutelage, teaching me the basic techniques of a chef, especially knife skills. It seems that I’d been using a knife for years without knowing how to use one. On that first morning, I paused to sharpen my knife, and Elisa stopped what she was doing and stared: I was doing it backward (ergo, I had always been doing it backward). Then, there was this rocking thing. The idea is that when you’re chopping food you want to leave the tip of your knife in place, on the cutting board: you then end up rocking the knife back and forth, and the blade slides effortlessly, and with much more control, through whatever it is you’re chopping. Everyone who cooks probably knows these things, but I didn’t.
Some techniques seemed fussy. Carrots were a trauma. Long-cooking meat broths have carrots in them, along with celery, onions, and herbs, which soften the meatiness of a meat liquid. Evidently, there were only two ways to cut up a carrot, rough cut and fine dice. Rough cut meant slicing the carrot in half, lengthwise, and then—chop, chop, chop—cutting it into perfectly identical half moons (which, to my eye, had nothing rough about them).
The nightmare was fine dice, which meant cutting every bit of the carrot into an identical one-millimetre-square cube. A carrot is not shaped like a cube, and so you painstakingly had to trim it up into a long rectangle, then cut it into thin, one-millimetre planks, and then take your one-millimetre planks and cut them into long, one-millimetre slivers, and then take your perfectly formed slivers, and, chop, chop, chop, cut them into one-millimetre cubes. I seemed to have done my first batch almost right—either that or it was late and everyone was in a hurry and no one looked too closely at the geometric mishmash in the container I’d filled. My second batch involved thirty-six carrots. It took me a long time to cube thirty-six carrots. Normally, Elisa popped around to make sure I wasn’t mangling what I was working on, but she must have trusted me with the carrots—after all, what can you do to a carrot?—so that when she finally looked in I was almost done. She shrieked, “I said fine dice. These are not fine dice. I don’t know what they are, but they’re wrong.” I had been cutting carrots for two hours, and then, like that, they were tossed. I wanted to weep. It was some weeks later that I finally succeeded in getting carrots right, although the achievement was secretly marred by the fact that to earn Elisa’s approbation—”These are good,” she said, picking up my four-quart and dumping the contents into a braising liquid—I had discreetly eaten several hundred imperfect cubes.
I prepared pork for a ragù (only after my first batch was returned—”These are chunks, I asked for cubes”) and learned how to trim the fat off a flank of beef. Jointing rabbits, I was taught how to tie up the loin with a butcher’s looping knot, and I was so excited by the discovery that I went home and practiced. (I told Elisa about my accomplishment. “I tied up everything,” I said. “A leg of lamb, some utensils, a chair. A friend came around, and I tied up her, too.” She shook her head. “Get a life,” she said, and returned to her task.)
I became captivated by the smells. By midmorning, when many things had been prepared, they were cooked in quick succession, and the smells came one after the other, waves of smell, like sounds in music. There was the smell of meat—the kitchen was overwhelmed by the rich, sweet, sticky smell of older lamb. And then, in minutes, it was chocolate melting in a metal bowl. Then a disturbing non sequitur like tripe (a curious disjunction, having chocolate in your nose followed immediately by stewing cow innards). And then something ripe and fishy—octopus poaching in a hot tub—followed by an over-extracted pineapple. And so they came, one after the other—huckleberries, chicken broth, the comforting chemistry of veal, pork, and milk as someone made a Bolognese ragù. Once I mastered some basic skills, I surprised myself by recognizing that I had stopped feeling self-conscious. There I was, in this back room, people’s knives knocking against cutting boards in the same rhythmic rocking way, mine among them: no windows, no natural light no connection to the outside world no idea what the weather might be only one phone, the number unlisted unreachable—surrounded by these intense associations of festive meals.
Mario returned from Europe in 1985 and went to San Francisco, where he was soon joined by his brother. The two of them rented a Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury district. Mario’s first job, not a happy one, was for a catering firm, where he prepared the biggest meal of his life, an Apple Computer office party for seven thousand people, which was held at a baseball stadium—he remembers having to push out wheelbarrows of shrimp and distribute them with a shovel (“How much fun is that?”)—but within six months he got what he was looking for, and was made a sous-chef at the Clift Hotel. For Dana Batali, being the roommate was not without the predictable stresses: he had an office job and had to leave at eight, which is when he regularly discovered his brother, along with several other chefs from the Clift Hotel kitchen, in various stages of collapse on the living-room floor, the room filled with smoke and empty bottles, the stereo on loud. Steve Crane, a friend who was a waiter at the time, remembers that he and Mario (“a clown riding around on a Suzuki 1100 painted to look like a zebra”) spent their after-hours at Stars, the restaurant that had recently been opened by Jeremiah Tower, the so-called patriarch of California cuisine. “The perfect resto of the moment,” Mario recalls. “Lively stylized food with attitude and energy— in short, much of the inspiration for everything I have done since.”
This was at the height of the California food revolution—not just of Tower but also of Alice Waters (and her neo-Provençal cooking), of raw seafood and marinated shellfish, of citrusy vinaigrettes and bright-colored salsas. “It was there, during the California explosion, that I first met chefs who wanted to talk about their craft,” Mario told me, “and where I learned that the palate is a very individual thing.” This is where he developed an appetite for vinegars and lemons. “Since then, my food has always been on the upper edge of acidity,” he said. “I tune things up with acidity, I fix things with acidity. A lot of flawed food made by these French guys would be brightened up with just a touch of acidity—to get you salivating.”
The Clift Hotel was owned by the Four Seasons, and after two years Mario was invited to work at the Biltmore in Santa Barbara, a stately old Spanish-colonial hotel the corporation had just bought and wanted to revitalize. Mario was brought in for all the obvious reasons (“energy, edge, fire, youth,” according to Brian Young, the manager who hired him) he was given his own restaurant, La Marina, and, according to Mario, became, for his age (twenty-seven), the highest-paid young chef in the company. But the experience was restless-making. Mario mentions some “weak pastas,” a smoked veal rack, a grilled lobster with fried artichokes. “The truth is, I don’t have much memory of the time,” he says. “I was staying out late. I was staying out very late.” Andy Nusser, who is currently the executive chef at Babbo, met Mario then, at a late-night dinner party, where someone had brought foie gras but didn’t know how to serve it. Rising to the challenge that a good chef should be able to make a meal with whatever is at hand, Mario prepared a sweet, vinegarlike reduction of orange Nehi soda and Starburst fruit candies. (“First, you remove each Starburst fruit gum from its wax-paper wrapper and put the candies in a saucepan, where, over a low heat, you melt them until you have a bright-colored syrup, and, then, separately, you cook the soda, until it’s reduced by half.”) Nusser insists that the result was very good (and was so impressed that he decided that night to become a chef).
At the end of that year, the Four Seasons management asked Mario to run a more exclusive restaurant, in Hawaii (“They begged me, they were desperate”). Batali not only turned down the offer he quit. He called his father, Armandino. Did he know of a place in Italy where he might be able to work for room and board? He wanted to learn how to cook like his grandmother, Leonetta Merlino Batali.
Leonetta Merlino had grown up working in the first Italian import store in Washington—Merlino’s, which her parents had opened in Seattle in 1903. The store was sold in the late sixties, and it has been a source of aggravating regret to Mario that his father didn’t take it over. (“They lost it,” Mario recalls. “They fucked it up.”) Everyone in the family has powerful memories of visits to Leonetta’s house for lunch (her husband died when Mario was six), which featured her handmade ravioli. Although she made large batches of the stuff, a thousand, twelve hundred at a time, relying on a family recipe from Abruzzi (an improbable mixture of calf’s brains, pork sausage, chicken, Swiss chard, and parmigiano and Romano cheeses), and rolling out the dough with a long pole, prized for the texture it created (“rough, like a cat’s tongue”), she allowed the children only six pieces. They still talk about it (“We knew there were more!” Gina Batali recalls. “We could see them!”), but the grandmother was determined to teach them to eat a family meal in an Italian way, with the pasta coming after the antipasto (a plate of salume and marinated vegetables) and before the secondo, of roasted meat, often lamb, always cooked with rosemary, always well done. The ravioli recipe is still in the family—Mario’s brother prepares it on Christmas Day (Leonetta, having made the ravioli so often she had no idea how she did it, was filmed by a cousin, who prompted her with questions)—as are many other of Leonetta’s recipes, preserved on two thousand three-by-five cards: a pasta sauce made from spare ribs (with, Mario recalls, “this kind of red pinky piggy flavor”) tripe and, a feature of New Year’s Eve, a salty baccalà (dried codfish, rehydrated with milk and cooked until it breaks down and becomes a sauce), served with hot polenta poured out onto a wooden board.
Armandino Batali sent me copies of some of the recipes. I found the stack of three-by-five cards surprisingly moving, a kitchen conversation between the dead and the living. I’ve often thought that food is a concentrated messenger of a culture, compacted into the necessity of our having to eat to survive, and I felt this powerfully as I read these mementos from another generation and listened to Armandino’s children talk about the eccentric-seeming recipes of their grandmother, who had learned them from her mother in the back room of a food store in Seattle, who, in turn, had learned them from her mother, in a house in a village in Abruzzi.
Armandino did not know of a place where Mario might work with a matronly Italian cook in exchange for room and board. But he had some friends who might know. He wrote five letters and got one reply. It was a trattoria on a hill above a town where airplane parts are made for Boeing. Room and board for the son of Armandino? A sous-chef for a Four Seasons restaurant? Of course. When can he start?
The Babbo kitchen is actually several kitchens. In the mornings, this small space—the work area is about twenty-five feet by ten—is called the prep kitchen, and is run by Elisa. In the evenings, it is called the service kitchen, and is run by Andy Nusser. And between the hours of one and five the two kitchens (more metaphors than places) overlap.
“Careful, these plates are extremely dirty.”
During this period, the prep chefs try to finish their duties and the evening cooks get their stations ready. There can be between fifteen and eighteen people in the kitchen. In many ways, these afternoons are exaggerated expressions of something that is characteristic of both New York (where space is precious and its value inflated) and the restaurant business (where the size of the kitchen and the dining room are financial calculations, and a small kitchen means more tables). At Babbo, the space concern is extreme. There is no lunch service because the metaphoric prep kitchen is still working at lunchtime there is also no lunch service because so much of the restaurant’s equipment—tablecloths, napkins, cutlery, plates, glasses—is stored underneath the banquettes where a lunch crowd would sit. (Every morning, the restaurant is taken apart every afternoon it is put back together.) The so-called Babbo “office” is an extension of the plumbing, jerry-built in whatever basement cranny presented itself at the time. (When a hot-water tank exploded—water for washing the dishes had to be boiled—the walls of the office were taken down so that the repairmen could get to the tank.) The desk of Mario’s assistant is near a slop sink, gurgling with the foodstuffs swirling into it. The smell is pervasive.
There is a hierarchy about space. Mario had warned me of this, after I mentioned that I must have been sticking my butt out because I kept getting bumped (“They bump you because they can—they’re putting you in your place”). The next day I counted: I was bumped forty times. Space is Andy’s first concern when he arrives he goes straight to the walk-in to see if he can shift the contents of the large containers to smaller ones (if he can’t, the work being done by the prep kitchen will have no place to be stored). Once, I was helping him prepare a salad. We started in the dining room, because there was no space in the kitchen. We moved to the dark coffee station when tables were being set up, until finally we were backed up against the ladies’ room. If you’re lucky enough to get a perch in the kitchen, you don’t leave it. You don’t answer the phone, run an errand, make a cup of coffee, have a pee, or, when you return, you won’t have your space. Around two o’clock, trays of braising meat come out of the oven, but there is no place to put them, so they are stacked on the first available surface—a waste bin, the pasta freezer, somebody’s lunch. Trays are stacked on top of those trays. And sometimes there are trays stacked on top of those.
Mario Batali (Yes, in His Orange Crocs) to Prepare Obamas’ Last State Dinner
WASHINGTON — Last month as President Obama met with world leaders in Manhattan during the final United Nations General Assembly of his tenure, Michelle Obama sneaked off to Greenwich Village to plan for some parting diplomatic flourishes of her own.
For about two hours at a private table at Babbo, on Waverly Place, Mrs. Obama sampled appetizers, entrees and desserts prepared by Mario Batali, the chef she had chosen to put together the last state dinner of the Obama era, honoring Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy.
The menu of dishes that ultimately made the cut for Tuesday night’s dinner was being as closely guarded this weekend as any state secret, though an official preview was scheduled for Monday afternoon at the White House.
Officials would say only that the 500 guests could expect “traditional Italian dishes that have been ingrained in American cuisine” — so, presumably, some of the more daring fare for which Mr. Batali is known, like goose liver ravioli, is not on the menu.
The dinner, in a lavishly decorated tent on the South Lawn, will be the 13th of Mr. Obama’s presidency. The chef the Obamas enlisted to prepare it is something of a familiar figure at the White House — a celebrity restaurateur who is also a longtime supporter of Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative and other efforts to promote healthy eating.
“These are some of my favorite people on the whole planet, and they’re asking me to cook for the final state dinner of the presidency, and, oh, by the way, it’s the Italians who are coming?” Mr. Batali said in an interview. “It doesn’t get better.”
But that does not mean it isn’t also intimidating. “I’d be lying to say I wasn’t shaking in my boots a little bit,” Mr. Batali said — or, more precisely, his signature orange Crocs, which he confirmed he would be wearing to cook at the White House. (“It’s all I’ve got,” he said.)
Mr. Batali planned to arrive in the White House kitchen with four assistants early Monday and begin a frenzy of cooking and plating that would include five or six “test drives” of each dish before the Tuesday dinner hour.
While he has never pulled off anything quite like a formal seated dinner for two world leaders and hundreds of prominent guests, Mr. Batali said his strategy would be “quite similar” to the one he employs in his many acclaimed restaurants, where preparation is paramount.
“We perceive it as the same type of thing as the dinner rush, but a little less complicated,” Mr. Batali said, because the vast majority of diners will be eating the same thing, rather than choosing among 17 appetizers, 20 pastas and 15 to 18 main dishes as they would at Babbo.
At the White House, where even the edible is political, Mr. Batali will avoid the more adventurous dishes found on Babbo’s menu, like the aforementioned ravioli, as well as the head cheese, tripe, pig foot and sweetbreads.
“I knew it was going to be something using almost 100 percent American ingredients, and nothing that would alienate anybody or frighten anybody or look like it was really fancy,” Mr. Batali said. “The dishes were all inspired by Italian dishes, so they will be simple and recognizable, but each with something to delight and surprise.”
Still, Mr. Batali said he had tried to stay true to his culinary instincts, as other chefs who have prepared state dinners for the Obamas have done.
“I looked at the other dinners by chefs that I know,” including Marcus Samuelsson, who prepared the India state dinner, the Obamas’ first Rick Bayless, who cooked the Mexico dinner Masaharu Morimoto, who did Japan’s and Anita Lo, who was featured at the second China state dinner. “They didn’t back away. They made food that was very indicative of their personal taste.”
Mr. Batali knows his way around the White House, where he appeared in 2010 for an “Iron Chef” battle that paired him with Emeril Lagasse against Bobby Flay and Cristeta Comerford, the White House executive chef. The teams cooked a menu showcasing Mrs. Obama’s kitchen garden. “They resoundingly crushed us,” Mr. Batali said.
And last year, he accompanied Mrs. Obama to the Milan Expo for an event about nutrition.
So when it came time to collaborate with Mr. Batali on this week’s dinner, Ms. Comerford and Susan Morrison, the White House pastry chef, knew what they were getting.
Ms. Comerford will prepare passed canapés made with ingredients from the final harvest of the White House kitchen garden. Ms. Morrison has constructed 44 fall harvest dessert centerpieces, complete with pumpkins and cornucopias made of chocolate, and she will serve miniature pastries, including a sweet corn crema and blackberry cup, a homage to one of Mr. Batali’s signature desserts.
The event, to be capped off by a performance by Gwen Stefani, will be the Obamas’ last chance to put their singular stamp on the button-down ritual of state dinners. Their debut, a 2009 dinner in honor of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, was marred by a party-crashing couple whose unauthorized entry later prompted a congressional inquiry.
Seven years and a dozen dinners later, the East Wing is well practiced in staging the kind of affair the Obamas want.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve got it down to a science, because there are so many details and logistics that go into making a state dinner a success, but we do know what it takes,” said Deesha Dyer, the White House social secretary.
This time, however, the process has been bittersweet, as the White House staff grows increasingly conscious that its time is drawing to a close.
“There is a little bit of nostalgia and beauty in knowing that you’re bringing this together for the last time under this roof,” Ms. Dyer said.
Mr. Batali said that he had waited for eight years for an invitation to cook at the White House, and that he was “proud to have made the list” of chefs who had the privilege.
“Knowing this is the last one, I only hope the meal lives up to the occasion,” he said.
RESTAURANTS Tapas for Really Close Friends
''IF they build it, you will come.'' That sums up Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali's partnership so far. In Casa Mono, a tapas bar-restaurant with a New York sensibility, they have another hit on their hands.
Since it opened in mid-December, Casa Mono has had the buzz, with its smoothly functioning dining room and a sommelier knowledgeable about the well-priced list of Spanish wines.
What it does not have is a good heating system. On really cold days, long winter underwear would not be out of place.
Mr. Bastianich, who is known to appear at each of his six restaurants every night, is spending a lot of time at Casa Mono: at the door, taking coats, serving wine, clearing plates, and in the open kitchen, keeping an eagle eye on the cooks.
Mr. Batali, the contributing chef and partner, is not just watching the cooks but also cooking with them.
In a space that came equipped with a fabulous Spanish mosaic tile floor, the owners did not have to do much to make the room attractive: they put up wood paneling and lined the walls with bottles of wine. Even so, the sommelier can be seen scurrying outside and around the corner in 10-degree weather to the wine room to fetch a bottle that did not make it to the shelves. Mr. Batali and Mr. Bastianich's Bar Jamón, the tiny tapas bar, whose food is cooked by the Casa Mono kitchen, is also around the corner.
At Casa Mono (is that monkey house or house of the monkey?), there is seating for 24 at tables and 14 at the bar, part of which is in front of the kitchen. The place is small, and there is already a serious crush.
It will certainly seem airier, if no quieter, when good weather permits sidewalk tables and the opening of the floor-to-ceiling windows.
I have never been to the restaurant as a regular patron: I have known two of the owners professionally for years. But having been spotted at restaurants throughout my reviewing career, I have learned one thing: the owners cannot improve the food for the reviewer's sake. They can improve the service they can make sure the food is hot. But if it does not taste good, they cannot make it better.
So, recognized or not, I found many more tasty little things to eat than those that still need work.
The cooks fry impeccably. The stars of the tapas menu are fried squid and the far more unusual fried pumpkin croquetas stuffed with goat cheese. Give these croquettes a chance to cool before jumping in. Then you can taste the contrasting creaminess and slight tartness of the cheese with the hint of sweetness in the pumpkin. The croquettes would be a fabulous addition to a Thanksgiving feast.
Even fried anchovies are well prepared, if you like fried anchovies. I am not a fan.
Pomegranate seeds are popular here. They have just the right touch of tart sweetness for quail, which is served with acorn squash and quince. Pomegranate seeds also appeared as a simple dessert, lounging in a bath of muscato, an irresistible sweet wine. One wit at our table said it was a dead ringer for a potpourri. On my last visit, the vivid red pomegranate seeds had been transformed, becoming part of a tangerine sorbet in muscato with slivers of tangerine in sherry gelatin, a sensational dessert for the calorie-conscious, better yet in May or June.
Mr. Batali and the restaurant's chef, Andy Nusser, also a partner, overhauled the dessert menu last week and came up with winners: a fudgy chocolate cake topped with milk chocolate ice cream and plump chocolate-covered almonds -- and I do not even like milk chocolate.
What to Cook This Weekend
Sam Sifton has menu suggestions for the weekend. There are thousands of ideas for what to cook waiting for you on New York Times Cooking.
- In this slow-cooker recipe for shrimp in purgatory, the spicy red pepper and tomato sauce develops its deep flavors over hours.
- Deploy some store-bought green chutney in this quick, saucy green masala chicken. could be good for dinner, and some blueberry muffins for breakfast.
- For dessert, watermelon granita? Or a poundcake with macerated strawberries and whipped cream?
- And for Memorial Day itself? You know we have many, many recipes for that.
Ricotta cheesecake may be a throwback to Mr. Batali's roots, though Mr. Nusser, who used to be the chef at Babbo, said he found it in a Catalan cookbook. Whatever its origins, it was a creamy delight served with orange-date ice cream and a membrillo (quince paste), which was melted with orange juice.
But crema catalana (crème brûlée) does not quite work, and as for buñuelos of bay leaves -- bay leaves encased in sugary puffs of dough -- forget about it.
In many ways, Casa Mono is a work in progress. But the diner will have no trouble putting together enough little plates to make a very satisfying meal. Watch out, though: enough of these little plates and you have a considerable bill.
The seafood is cooked to a turn, whether it is chipirones (squid) with tiny white beans that look like pine nuts scallops in the shell with garlic and a sprinkling of ground chorizo and cava, a sparkling wine or a very simple dorada (sea bream or porgy) on a bed of sautéed salsify and dots of salsa verde.
Lively mixes of complementary tastes are provided by quail with quince guinea hen with roasted parsnips and glazed pumpkin skirt steak with onion marmalade pequillo peppers with stewed oxtail and wild boar with roasted vegetables.
Even simple artichoke hearts, Brussels sprouts and parsnips are skillfully grilled on a plancha, a flat iron grill.
Patatas bravas, fingerling potatoes in a spicy brew of sautéed onion, tomato, mayonnaise and cayenne are hard to resist. (Pity the poor low-carb dieters.)
But sunny-side-up duck egg with potatoes and thin slices of salted tuna loin is bland. Lamb chops, which I have had three times, are never cooked the same: sometimes overdone, sometimes medium rare. They are always oversalted, though. Duck and olives cannot hold a candle to the French version.
I will never know how cap i pota fria (the name is Catalan dialect for calves head and feet, or headcheese) tastes. Do you really want this on the menu in the age of mad cow?
And I am afraid you are on your own when it comes to cockscomb and tripe.
52 Irving Place (17th Street) (212) 253-2773.
ATMOSPHERE -- Upscale tapas bar-restaurant, lively and crowded.
SOUND LEVEL -- Cheerfully noisy.
RECOMMENDED DISHES -- Pumpkin and goat cheese croquetas fried calamari chipirones with white beans scallops with cava and chorizo quail with quince and granada dorada steak with onion marmelada pequillo peppers with oxtails grilled artichokes, Brussels sprouts and parsnips patatas bravas orange sorbet with pomegranate and muscato fudgy chocolate cake with chocolate ice cream and chocolate-covered almonds cheesecake with orange-date ice cream and membrillo.
SERVICE -- Friendly and professional.
WINE LIST -- Well-priced and interesting Spanish list, with many, many choices.
HOURS -- Daily, lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. dinner, 5:30 p.m. to midnight.
PRICE RANGE -- Dishes, $3 to $15.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS -- No steps.
(None) Poor to satisfactory
Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.
Mario Batali’s Website Adds, Then Removes, Hint of a Comeback
What was, briefly, “Coming Soon” from Mario Batali? Earlier this week, a tipster spotted an update on the disgraced chef’s personal website, MarioBatali.com, which featured a new photograph of the chef and the phrase “Coming Soon.” When contacted, a representative for Batali said that the “Coming Soon” was mistakenly added by the site’s webmaster and would be promptly removed. (It was.)
But if the “Coming Soon” phrase was an error, new life on the site seems to indicate that something is up. A quick spin through the Wayback Machine reveals that the website’s previous iteration, which included sections about the chef’s restaurants, recipes, cookbooks, and philanthropic efforts, remained stagnant after sexual harassment allegations against Batali came out in December 2017. The site design also remained unchanged throughout the months-long divestment process, during which the chef sold off his shares of what was formerly the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group.
The site was refreshed sometime over the summer with the new Batali photo, which puts the man front and center. In a portrait that takes up the whole of the screen, he wears a vest — this one worn canvas, instead of his signature fleece — and a tight-lipped near smile. The kitchen on either side of his standing form is blurred out. And while the pre-allegations website, which seemingly stuck around until at least March 2019, was “made in collaboration with CMYK,” this new version notes scripts by GBIT Media with a 2019 copyright.
According to an April 2018 New York Times story, Batali spent the months following the accusations of unwanted touching “examining his blind spots” and preparing for some future venture in which his personality would take a backseat. One proposed scenario had him creating a new company with a woman in charge. By December 2018, Batali would tell a New York Magazine reporter that “I’m not going to live my life in public anymore,” and giving Fox News a statement that he was “not attempting a professional comeback.”
But it’s almost inevitable, if extremely disheartening, that the chefs accused of sexual misconduct since the start of the #MeToo movement will attempt comebacks. Bay Area restaurateur Charlie Hallowell sold his restaurants, but opened a new one. Ken Friedman eventually came to the realization that he would need to remove himself from the Spotted Pig in order for the restaurant to survive being associated with allegations of his own sexual misconduct, but this doesn’t mean his career is over — the former restaurateur is still planning a Long Island antiques shop. And this brief internet sleuthing seems to indicate that Mario Batali’s second act, as the New York Times put it back in April, was in the works.
Openings: Mario Batali-Nancy Silverton pair of L.A. eateries -- Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza -- are kind of sort of on the verge of opening (for the record, Pizzeria Mozza will open the week of October 30th according to the restaurant's answering machine). See also: The complete press kit.
Openings: Much-hyped L.A. import Pinkberry opens to a not-so-rave review: "The verdict? Um, that shit is nars-TY. Like pukey ice milk. No joke."
Watch the video: The Most Expensive Restaurants In NYC (October 2021).