Mario Batali's tribute to authentic Italian food is almost perfect. Aside from the odious heavy metal and rock music--incongruous to both the setting and fare--the Batali empire's flagship, which occupies a row house in the West Village, rivaled if not topped all of our dining experiences in Italy.
Before I delve into this review, my overall assessment (and I know B agrees), is that this is one of the most unique and authentic Italian restaurants in the world. If you have the chance, go.
We first visited Babbo in December of 2006, when we were able to snag a reservation after calling 30 calendar days ahead on three phones the moment the reservation line opened at 10:00am for a half hour straight. On that visit, we opted for the tasting menu with wine pairings and left enamoured and in the rare food-and-wine induced haze not unlike what we experienced last fall after a visit to an iconic Lyon bouchon. Though we didn't opt for the tasting menu on last weekend's visit, the food was equally as fresh, inventive, flavorful, seasonable, and the servers just as knowledgeable and passionate. The experience was flawless from the amuse bouche to the miniature cookies that accompanied the check.
This past weekend, we did not have reservations, and decided stop in later in the evening (on account of our late afternoon snack) and try our luck at scoring seats at the bar or one of the front tables reserved for walk-ins. This whole process for queuing all walk-ins (including to the bar itself) was managed by a very competent host and hostess duo who coordinated effectively with the bartenders (separate lists exist for the bar and bar tables). But it's still a total crapshoot as to how long--or whether--you'll get seated since they do not rush the service here (which is actually a great thing once you are seated).
Our patience paid off, and while we were not seated until close to 10:00, we got two stools at the bar after waiting a mere 30 minutes. The service at the bar was without error. It amazes me how the servers are able to run dishes in a very small place, but they do so with aplomb.
We began by sharing a glass of Lambrusco, a slightly sparkling red wine from Northern Italy. We settled on a $50 red from the Veneto after an extensive review of such a voluminous wine list, which consisted of plenty of splurge wines, but also included a large number of bottles at $50 or under. We munched on the night's amuse bouche, chick peas in a slightly spicy balsamic reduction over a crostini. These were good but nothing compared to what was to come.
DISCLAIMER: I took stealth photos without the flash, so please look past the slight darkness.
BEHOLD: An appetizer selection of melt-in-your-mouth house made pancetta with peppery, salty hard salami served with charred bread in olive oil. This pancetta tasted like the indulgent cured lard (yes, lard) we experienced years ago in Modena and have not had anything similar too until this last weekend.
I ordered a spring green dish to make up for that fat. I actually had no idea that this would be a salad based on the menu description of vegetables, but I was quite pleased. The vegetables were served with a ricotta vinaigrette, spicy micro greens, crisp snap peas, and fresh asparagus. The combination of crisp, smooth, and sweet was perfect.
This time for entrees we opted for pasta dishes. I think we were both in a euphoric state while enjoying these. B chose a linguine with crispy fried polenta, asparagus, and freshly grated sheep's milk cheese. The contrast of flavors and textures made this dish pop.
After experiencing the exquisite papardelle (served simply with butter and mushrooms) I tasted as part of the tasting menu our first trip, I opted once again for this pasta, however this time in a rich bolognese sauce. This was just out of this world. The papardelle folds over itself in what looks like cake batter as it is poured into a pan. The bolognese was meaty and sweet; the parmesan pungent; and the pasta cooked to perfection.
For dessert I opted for a rhubarb tart with orange ice cream. Served warm, the crispy sweet shell paired well with the slightly tart rhubarb.
And for B, a banana/olive oil cake with banana ice cream. The cake was so moist, and despite being bananas three ways, the flavor somehow did not overpower the dish.
So we ended the evening close to midnight, full, happy and vowing to come back again soon. For a meal like this, a three hour train ride seems totally warranted. As an aside, I am one happy and lucky foodie, having dined at Citronelle and Babbo in the span of less than two weeks!
The total for the meal -- two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts, one glass of Lambrusco, a bottle of wine, tax and tip was $200. For this caliber of restaurant I think the prices are quite reasonable.