An Italian restaurant in New York City isn’t exactly a novel idea. Walking around the sundry neighborhoods of the five boroughs, one can trip and fall over one ristorante and land right in another cucina. So what is it that separates one eatery from another? It comes down to quality – of ingredients, preparation, ambiance, and service. And Mario Batali’s Babbo offers all of these in spades.
Opened in 1998 with Batali’s business partner Joseph Bastianich, Babbo is nestled snugly into the south side of Waverly Place just off of 6th avenue. The décor is lush, replete with the rich maroons and yellows characteristic of an Italian villa, dark woods, and sensuous low light. Despite its fame, though, the restaurant is no exception to the microscopic standards of size inherent to New York City’s Greenwich Village real estate.
That diminuitive size combined with Babbo’s chic factor means you can bet on a full dining room when you sit down to eat – if you haven’t made a reservation (you’ll have to call an absurd month in advance to be sure) then the smart money says you should probably try to grab a seat at the bar. But at Babbo “full” doesn’t necessarily mean overcrowded – the hustle and bustle of the popular hotspot gives the room an endearing electricity that keeps it humming through the dinner hours and later into the night.
Ordering through the bartender won’t dampen your experience either, as the entire staff is well trained and possesses an exemplary knowledge of the menu. That acumen was quite handy when it came to elucidating the pasta tasting menu, an eight-course foray through both traditional and experimental Italian fare.
The tasting menu affords diners the ability to sample from the full range of Babbo’s fare – and sample is a word I use somewhat casually here. The servings are more than generous, so come hungry and I can assure you that you’ll leave happy.
Dinner kicks off with a black Tagliatelle cooked alongside corn and liberally sprinkled with Castelmagno cheese. The pasta is intriguing in its own right, as the black color is achieved by adding squid ink during the production process. If that isn’t your thing, then feel free to ignore it, as it doesn’t do much to alter the flavor. The dish is a little heavy to lead off with, but the pasta was cooked exquisitely and the varying textures and flavors were mingled expertly.
The second course is a scrumptious Casunzei. (This is the one I return to in my head when I recall this meal.) A light ravioli filled with beets and potatoes, the Casunzei at Babbo are delicate pockets pasta that burst with flavor. A poppy seed garnish is added for a little well-deserved texture, as well as a chiffonade of parsley over a thin butter sauce. The colors on the plate are just as appealing, with the bright pink of the beet and potato filling showing ever so slightly through the thin pasta of the ravioli, alongside the green and black flecks of the parsley and poppy seeds.
The next three dishes, while delicious, are quite a bit more traditional – that is to say something closer to what you might find on the menu at your average NYC Italian joint. That being said, the execution was flawless on each of the Garganelli with “Funghi Trifolati,” Agnolotti al Pomodoro, and the Papardelle Bolognese. The sauces on the Agnolotti and Papardelle are full of flavor and stand up well to the pastas they adorn, but are still light enough not to overpower the entire dish, while the mushrooms in the Garganelli were cooked to perfection.
Paired with the house brewed beer – choose a dark or a light – each dish was a delight in and of itself. However, I might have preferred the sequencing to be reversed. I normally would have expected the food to become more experimental as the menu progressed, but instead the dishes led to more and more familiar (but fantastic) flavors.
Dessert is a three-course finale that provides an excellent sweet finish to the savory body of the meal. The Chocolate Delizia “Sotto Cappello” stood head and shoulders above the rest. A beautiful chocolate cake under a sweet and airy puff of marzipan, crisped faintly on the outside, the richness is decadent and elegant all at once.
While there may be a plethora of options from which to choose when it comes to Italian fare in New York City, I have to give Babbo a resounding endorsement. The food is authentic and prepared without flaw, the service is top-notch, and the ambiance will let you feel as if you’re doing some fine dining without putting you off with pretension. In short, a meal at Babbo is of the kind that can make you forget about all the other restaurants in the city for at least as long as you can taste it – and not just the Italian ones.