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  SO THAT'S AMORE! A YOKEL'S GUIDE TO BABBO.  
   
   
 

Of all the ethic cuisines America has adopted as its own, none has been so zealously embraced as Italian food. We love it more than hot dogs, more than pot roast -- we even love it more than apple pie. From Chef Boyardee to Dominos; from the Olive Garden to Fazoli's -- Italian food is so stained into our national psyche that it's easy to

 
 

forget that it is (or was) Italian in the first place. In fact, staring down the gooey, grease-pitted alien landscape of a Pizza Hut meat-lover's, it's difficult to measure just where Italy ends and America begins.

The answer of course, lies somewhere in between -- somewhere deep in the primordial minestrone ooze where a new kind of food was born. This is where we find the Digornio's and the SpaghettiOs; this is where the bread sticks are unlimited gratis and the crust is always filled with cheese. But there is one man trying to reclaim Italian food as a vital and exciting cuisine, trying to stick us with a shot of extra-virgin olive oil straight to the jugular,

     
 

and thanks to the explosive rise of celebrity chefs and the Food Network, his influence is growing.

Chef Mario Batali has built a small empire promoting his brand of authentic Italian cuisine. He is the driving force behind no fewer than six high-end restaurants in New York City, he's been involved with at least three TV shows (Molto Mario, Mario Eats Italy and Iron Chef America), and he's written or co-written six cook books. But unlike some celebrity chefs (cough, cough, Emeril) Batali doesn't seem to have surrendered his culinary life force completely to the whims of a television audience -- or at least not yet. Batali has also earned some considerable street cred. His flagship restaurant Babbo got three stars from the New York Times and he's also nabbed a slew of prestigious awards including the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef in New York City in 2002. Having recently been handed the all-powerful title of "Iron Chef Italian" on the Iron Chef America TV series, there is no doubt that Batali has reached a new level of popular exposure. So how good is his food? Is Iron Chef America the beginning of a Batali-led revolution, or will he end up as just another Olive Garden in the mall parking lot of American food? And while we're at it -- what's with the ponytail?

Babbo Ristorante a Enoteca is the place to find out. Though deceptively humble in appearance, it's the brainchild of Chef Batali's culinary empire. Babbo sits on a quiet block of Waverly Place just off Washington Square Park, and it looks and feels like the fabled 'great little Italian place' of the movies and TV, the one where the nice guy in romantic comedies always take his impromptu dates: "Hey, I know a great little Italian place, just around the corner …" It looks the way we want an Italian restaurant to look -- a little rustic and a little modern with just a pinch of romance and a shitload of giant wine bottles lining the walls.

The traditional tasting menu ($65) is a seven-course survey of Babbo's heart and soul -- the range of Italian dishes that Batali hangs his hat on. It begins with a small, raw fish dish -- Bluefin Crudo with Green Chilis and Grapefruit. Aside from the lush green olive oil drizzled over this dish (and the glass of wine that you should have ordered by this point), there is nothing obviously Italian about it, which is a good start. It acts as a gentle diversion, a way to knock our senses off-guard so that when the pasta arrives, it has at least the chance at a fair trial. The succulent chunks of crimson bluefin tuna come circled by sections of juicy, rose-colored grapefruit. The bits of green chili add just enough heat to tie the meatiness of the fish to the tart fruit.

Next comes the pappardelle with hedgehog mushrooms and thyme, one of two pasta dishes. This is where the true battle for the heart of Italian food begins. Whereas a lot of gourmet food benefits from the element of surprise -- if you've never had foie gras or watermelon soup, for instance, you have nothing to compare it to -- pasta is almost too familiar to judge objectively. But Batali seems to have anticipated this and chosen to highlight some of pasta's latent charms.

The pappardelle -- a wide, flat ribbon pasta -- is so fresh that you can actually taste its inherit wheatiness. It comes glazed in a silken, butter sauce and tossed with fresh thyme and whole hedgehog mushrooms -- pungent, chewy little morsels that lack the subtle, dirt-floor flavor of the more common varieties. The combined flavors of the pasta, mushrooms and herb is earthy and aromatic. You practically feel like a Tuscan peasant farmer. Now all you need is a few missing teeth and a nagging, mole-covered wife. Notice: There's no tomato sauce or alfredo sauce -- another smart move on Batali's part. The longer he can avoid the classic Italian combinations, the better chance that we won't start wondering why we're paying $65 for pasta.

Of course there's only so long you can go in an Italian tasting menu without a tomato sauce and pasta dish, and Batali has decided to hit us in the third course -- back-to-back with the first pasta dish. Duck tortelli with "sugo finto," is basically a glorified plate of raviolis. The tortelli are shaped like little pope hats (nice touch) and filled with a rich, velveteen duck meat mixture. They're come in a Sugo Finto -- a tomato sauce usually containing little or no meat. I guarantee this is the best tomato sauce and pasta dish you've ever had, assuming you don't have an Italian grandma cooking for you. The tomato sauce is perfect -- tangy and rich, and sparse enough that your tortelli won't drown in it. But the duck meat mixture is the secret weapon in this dish. It's not a meat most of us associate with pasta, and the flavor is distinct enough to skyrocket this simple Italian standard high into the gourmet stratosphere.

It almost worked too. I almost got through the whole second pasta dish without ever being reminded of the zillion boring bowls of pasta I've eaten in my life, but then it happened. I couldn't help it. I'm just not strong enough. Suddenly the delicate wall separating authentic Italian and Itali-American crumbled under the torrential flood of memories -- Prego Garden Style and Classico Three Cheese. My taste buds were suddenly awash in a sea of marinara-flavored nostalgia stretching all the way back to the beginning, sitting in my high chair as a little kid, smearing my face that first bowl of SpaghettiOs. Damn you, Chef Boyardee!

In the fourth dish we finally venture into unknown territory with the grilled venison with parsnips and pomegranate vinaigrette. It may well be an Italian dish, but how the hell would I know? I wouldn't, and that's exactly the point. Even before tasting it, this dish reestablishes the important 'we-know-something-you-don't-know' factor that gives gourmet restaurants the surprise and authoritative snootiness that we've come to expect from them.

The venison (deer meat) arrives very red and splayed out in strips, which rest stop a mound of cooked parsnips -- a fleshy, slightly sweet vegetable with a flavor somewhere between carrot and potato. The plate is sprinkled with pomegranate vinaigrette and an occasional juicy pomegranate seed. This is the kind of dish that makes you believe that Mario Batali really is worthy of the title Iron Chef. The biting tart of the pomegranate and the ripe, gamey flavor of the deer, the sweet starchiness of the parsnips -- somehow all these layers of taste construct a micro-universe inside the mouth, far away from mozzarella and ricotta. This is where the potential exists for a new neural pathway running straight from tongue to brain, miraculously untouched by the Olive Garden, yet still Italian.

In the interests of accurate reporting, this divine moment in Italian eating was followed by a long interval of waiting and wondering about the last dish before dessert -- described only as Coach Farm's finest with fennel honey. Timing is important during any meal, but especially when embarking on the long road of a tasting menu, it's good to keep the dishes arriving at a regular pace. Waiting allows customers think too much -- about the weather, about work, about life, about how much to tip the waiter. But maybe that's the price we pay for a little taste of celebrity food. The last dish came -- it turned out to be a narrow wedge of sharp, milky goat cheese laced with peppercorns and paired up with a nice pool of honey flavored with fennel seeds. It was a good way to end the meal. The sweetness of the honey mingled with the fennel and cheese to present the taste buds with a subtle, parting challenge: 'You think you know Italian?' it seems to say, 'Bub, you don't know shit.'

 

Brian Bernbaum writes a monthly 'Yokel's Guide' dining column for The Black Table. He is also the mind behind Hipsters Are Annoying.