My Pilgrimage to Babbo.

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By Ezra Klein

We were still a good half-block away from Babbo when I turned to my date and admitted my anxiety. “This feels less like a meal than a pilgrimage,” I said. She looked at me strangely.

I wasn’t bullshitting. Bill Buford’s Heat — a book that acts as an extended ode to Mario Batali’s flagship restaurant Babbo — is a favorite. Batali’s Babbo Cookbook is a mainstay. The beclogged Batali is a familiar television companion. But I’d never been to the source. I was trapped in a particularly modern version of Plato’s cave: I’d read books about Babbo’s food, seen it on television, watched it on YouTube, picked through reviews of it on the internet, but had never tasted so much as a strand of Babbo’s pasta.

Babbo accepts reservations one month to the calender day in advance. I called on February 21st, at 10:09 in the morning. Busy. I called six minutes later. Busy. Two minutes later. Busy. Busy. Busy. Busy. At 11:36, a hostess picked up. “This is Babbo,” she chirped. “How can I help you?” I’d like a reservation for March 21st, I said. She sighed. “We’re pretty booked that day,” she said.

On March 21st, at 5:45pm — yes, you read that right — I arrived at Babbo with three dinner companions. Actually, I arrived at 5:37. I was excited. I had studied the menu. I had read reviews on Yelp. I had been obsessively repeating “warm lamb’s tongue vinaigrette with three minute egg” as if it were a mystical incantation. I was ready. I turned my face towards Mecca and ordered.

Eh.

Babbo would be a great neighborhood trattoria. If it were six blocks from my house and I could wander over on a Wednesday, I’d tell friends about this great little Italian place I knew. But for a table you have to reserve at 10am with 30 days notice, it’s less then special. The lamb’s tongue was extraordinary, but our other appetizers — a stingy helping of prosciutto in the shadow of two giant hunks of toast, three inch-long flashes of sardine, and peppers stuffed with salted fish — ranged from acceptable to overpriced. Of the five pastas we tasted, none would have, say, led me to quit my job as fiction editor of the New Yorker and beg Batali to install me in his kitchen. Compared to restaurants like Chez Panisse and Bazaar, it’s frankly weak.

Which doesn’t mean I’ve totally lost the faith. Babbo might not have let me touch transcendance, but my belief has brought more prosaic rewards into my life: This blog, for instance. The hours I spent enjoying Heat. The pasta I made from Batali’s cookbook. The wonderful restaurant experiences that came because I believed in the One, True Restaurant. I may not believe in Babbo anymore, but I’m glad that I once did.

15 responses to “My Pilgrimage to Babbo.

  1. It is out there…

    El Bulli

    Believe

  2. That’s part of the problem with this type of hype — it is nearly impossible to match it. The meals that I have most anticipated rarely match my anticipation, which is generally unfair to the source material. I suspect that you would have been blown away by the meal had you been brought there without specific expectations. I had one of the truly amazing meals of my life at MOTO in Chicago. If you went there expecting the same, you’d likely be disappointed.

  3. Zach (in Baltimore)

    Similarly, I’ve eaten at one of Batali’s (non-flagship) restaurants and it was satisfying but not incredible. Every single recipe I’ve made of his is fantastic, though, even if I screw part of it up. Last night was duck, pig-style (of which many parts were screwed up). It’s probably difficult to combine duck and pancetta without it tasting fantastic, though.

  4. I had a similar experience at Babbo. I loved Heat and had been over-exposed to all of the Batali hype – and was disappointed by the whole thing. In fact, there was something actively wrong with our pasta (it was gummy and sticking together underneath the ragu) – but even if that hadn’t been true, it was “Eh” overall. I agree with DS Cahr that this kind of let-down is inevitable when restaurants achieve such a level of attention.

  5. I think the real key to Babbo is going in and getting the tasting menu, either the normal one or the pasta tasting menu. Both the times I’ve gone there (on special occasions with my girlfriend) we’ve gotten one of the tasting menus, and they were really quite special. Pasta is what Batali claims to do best, but I liked the standard tasting menu best; the pasta tasting menu was pretty damn good, though.

    But yeah, in general, on short notice, you’re probably better off going to Otto than Babbo. But transcendent meals are definitely possible at Babbo.

  6. The other trick to getting a table is to call about 2 days before and get a cancellation. You’ll get a 10 p.m. table, but the place is jumping around then. I’ve eaten there twice, had great meals both times, but the best meal was the tasting dinner pair with wines. It remains one of the best dining experiences I’ve had. Admittedly we were totally plowed by the end of the meal and may have had an “I love you man” moment with the Maitre d’.

  7. I wasn’t disapointed when I went to Babbo, but I wasn’t amazed by the meal either. I went with a good size group and we tried most of the Pasta and a number of other things. I thought everything was excellent.

    I agree with you though, that it felt more like a great neighborhood restaurant than a destination.

  8. Back when Babbo was Mario’s only restaurant, during its first year or so open, it lived up to the hype. Once he decided on the empire expansion, it rapidly went downhill, and not one of his places that he’s opened since has lived up to what Babbo was (nor what Po was before Babbo, when Mario was cooking food from his heart and soul that was truly worth eating). I’m sure his bank account has minded….

  9. bah bah, little sheep....have you any tongue?

    the tongue of a lamb,
    doused in vinegar?

  10. I like Lupa…decent prices I think and the food is great. And you can get a seat at the bar on a weeknight…sometimes at a table if you’re lucky!

  11. I too had read Heat and had wanted to visit Babbo ever since. On one visit to New York I tried calling a month ahead to get reservations, but to no avail. Then last year, completely unplanned, I was in the neighborhood and just walked in, and we were lucky enough to get a couple of seats at the bar after a relatively short wait. I thought it was quite good, but as Ezra says, not transcendent. But expectations are pretty important- if I had made reservations a month ahead and been anticipating it all that time, I probably would have felt differently then I did after walking in, sitting at the bar, and having some damn good food. The atmosphere and decor are nothing special, and the ipod-on-shuffle background music was unusual (some complain about the lack of conventional fine dining atmosphere) but it worked for me.

  12. i have to defend babbo. I would say i’ve had three truly special meals in my life. One was at Per Se, and i can really only describe how good it was by saying that i paid for it myself and it was worth every penny, and probably more. The second was at Les Ambassadeurs in L’Hotel Crillon in Paris (right on Place de la Concorde). This one i did not pay for myself, but it was lunch. And it was spectacular. And the third was Babbo. Now, it’s possible that we caught Babbo on a really good night, because I’ve definitely heard a lot people who feel similarly to Ezra. However, i have to say, that this meal was super, super good. First, the beef-cheek ravioli tastes (and it’s possible i’m plagiarizing Bruni or something) like a cloud. It’s incredible. Second, almost every pasta was special. And third, the rack of lamb was the best lamb i’ve ever had, not even close (i’ve had a lot of lamb). I also think that Batali deserves a lot of credit (along with the Bastianich clan) for bringing true italian food to America, and making it his own. Finally, it should be noted that almost every entree at Babbo is under $30, which is to say, people can actually afford it. Babbo isn’t as good as Per Se or Les Ambassadeurs, but it is my favorite restaurant–by a lot.

  13. I’d take Lupa or Otto over Babbo any day. I think there’s a lot more transcendence to be had elsewhere for Babbo prices, but it’s tough to beat Lupa and Otto for price-to-happiness ratio.

  14. So falls the tower of Babbo.

  15. Whereas when I went there I and my date just walked in and were seated immediately at the table they keep open for, yes, people just walking in—admittedly a chancy proposition and you have to sit near the entrance, but it certainly takes the pressure off and you get the same food as everyone else.

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