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.
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.