February 25, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

The Tower of Babbo

Fronds of bitter puntarelle gift wrap this lush and meaty duck in rare slices and confit.
Fronds of bitter puntarelle gift wrap this lush and meaty duck in rare slices and confit.

           It’s been more than ten years since I’d been to Babbo. Not because that last dinner in 2002 wasn’t larded with great highs and a few astonishments.  The sugar plum bellini, for instance. The sardines on the grandmother’s menu fairly bristling. How fresh can a sardine be? No, Babbo was always there, a madhouse, a challenge to get a table (unless you had Joe Bastianich’s telephone number which, as he wrote in his memoir, I certainly have used).

           In that decade I did my job. I pursued the new. I tried to be first. I had an early taste of Eataly and predicted it would never work. That’s about as wrong as I have ever been.

Opening Night at Eataly: Mario salutes partner Joe Bastianich. Photo: Steven Richter

           Babbo. I’m back. You pugnacious purgatory of pleasure. The joys I’d forsaken come tumbling again, along with the bruises, at dinner one wind-whipped February Friday night.  A young friend – a seriously passionate cook and foodie – had performed whatever cartwheels necessary to reserve a table. Would I join her to meet her equally fussy gourmandish parents visiting from Hong Kong?  She would translate. Yes. Yes. I was quite touched to be included.

           I am transported, like Dorothy in Kansas, by a swirl of wind, through Babbo’s door into the celebratory scrum three deep at the bar. What might be a passageway to the check-in stand has tables with eaters thrilled to score a seat, even if it’s in the full throttle of pilgrims shoving toward the Hajj.

Looking down (literally, not critically) at Babbo’s main room, deceptively serene.

           My friends are early, too. She’d asked for a table upstairs, expecting a measure of serenity. She’s studied the Babbo entrance exam and passed. Standing beside her and Mom on the edge of the dining room, I marvel at watching a tag team of busboys restaging a vacated table in seconds. I sense that I have been recognized.  But perhaps our party of five would be led upstairs quite promptly anyway, even honored with the big corner table on the outer edge of the fray.

           And yes, as always, the chickpeas are tumbling from their ovals of toast onto the saucer of the house’s signature amuse. I’m nabbing most of the strays from the plate with my fingers, in what is probably not upper class Hong Kong etiquette.  The slab of warm bread with burned crust plopped onto a bread plate next is less amusing.

This crepe sounded more exciting than it was. I regret not starting with a favorite pasta.

           I sip the langhe rosso poured from its $17 carafe as Josephine translates the menu for her parents. They order steamed cockles with red chiles, and marinated fresh sardines with caramelized fennel and lobster oil. Both Josephine and I are intrigued by the captain’s translation of “neci con funghi misti” -- a crepe filled with wild mushrooms and topped with radicchio and greens in a blood orange vinaigrette. Alas, it’s a fetching eyeful but a mouthful of ho-hum.

           Josephine’s husband trades a taste of his spaghetti with spicy budding chives and a whole lobster on top – a monumental starter, molto Bataliesque – for a chunk of my stuffed pancake.  Normally at Babbo I would order pasta as a main course. Mint love letters with spicy lamb sausage, for the sake of the poetry. Gnocchi with braised oxtail or pumpkin half moons or beef cheek ravioli. Maybe bucatini all’Amatriciana with hog jowl and hot pepper because it was my guy’s favorite, and I love that mix of acidy tang, smoky must and staccato heat.

By Mario’s design, the pastas once provocative are now home-cooking.

           Now the calf’s brains “francobolli” call out to me, whispering You only live once, babe, may as well go for the most cholesterol-loaded dough on this menu. Me, myself, and I have a brief argument about it.  Indeed, if you were going to Babbo for the first time and asked me what to order, I would urge you to have warm lamb’s tongue vinaigrette to start, followed by the seven-course pasta-tasting menu at $60.

           But tonight I’ve got my mouth set for barbecued squab with roasted beet farrotto (a sort of risotto of farro) or the duck with puntarelle. I have a tough time resisting that rarely- seen seasonal green. But Josephine orders squab. Since I am sure she’ll offer me a taste. it’s duck for me.

Big Pink: a juicy, superlative veal chop.

           And then sensory distractions fade. I know Led Zeppelin is there but I can’t hear it. I’ve retrieved my scarf from the check-room downstairs to shuffle off the draft from the window. The screech of grape-fueled happiness at the next table softens.  Fat pink slices of duck appear and my mouth is full of exquisitely cooked meat. Ribbons of scorched puntarelle make a chewy palate freshener and, just two bites of the fatty confit’d thigh underneath is enough.

           I trade the rest for a little mess of Josephine’s squab and farro, a marvelous tangle of sweet and sticky flavors, and a remarkably juicy interior chunk of her husband’s grilled veal chop, slicked with truffle vinaigrette.  I am zoning out on the too-muchness of it all.

The kitchen sends a gift of saffron panna cotta with grapefruit.

           Then Josephine’s mother sends over a generous rectangle of meat.  Blackened beef tongue, charred and unctuous, with a few strands of cabbage and a touch of mustard.  Of course, I think, this is why we are here. For the promised upper-cut of fat and sweet and salt and umami. There’s no sign of an orange clog but mentally I give the clog-dancer his due.

A farewell truffle is always nice but meringues and biscotti strike me as perfunctory.

           Most of the diners tonight at Babbo are probably too young to remember when serious eaters dismissed Italian desserts as primitive. Certainly Babbo’s pastry chef Gina dePalma has done much to shatter the spumoni ceiling. 

           I might like more flavorful apples in my crostata with maple cider caramel and sea salt, but tonight’s ricotta cheesecake with chestnut cream, chestnut honey and,  tangy saba (reduced grape syrup), and the pear-almond “sottosopra” cake with spiced ricotta gelato, make a fitting finale. Actually, they make the gift cookies seem curiously banal.

Mario is both shallow and deep. I am fascinated. Recently he told Eater he’s moving from persnickety

toward a Danny Meyer moment. Eataly Photo: Steven Richter

           I sneak a look at the bill: about $100 per person with tip. Fair enough if you’re flush. And not bad for a splurge, even if you’re pinched a bit. As I shove my way through the layers of standees toward the door, hoping no one will punch a senior citizen, I try not to focus on the Barbie doll-size commode in the mezzanine bathroom, which requires a sideways approach. Why be a pill? I focus on next time. I’ll order the caramelized beef tongue. And the postage-size pockets filled with brains too. You only live once is my mantra after all, and you hope your arteries will live as long as you do. For breakfast tomorrow, a husk of crust can start my rehab.


110 Waverly Place between Sixth Avenue and MacDougal 212 777 0303. Dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 pm. Sunday from 4:30 till 11 pm.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013, All right reserved.

Click here to follow my twitterings.


Cafe Fiorello