December 11, 2010 - If you've perused the recipes on this site, you'll know that I'm a huge Mario Batali fan. I was in New York City and I wasn't leaving this time without trying Babbo. We did not have reservations, but my friend, Amy, who has been to Babbo before, suggested that we go early, when the restaurant opened, and try to get a seat at the bar. We arrived at 4 pm - 1 hour before the restaurant was to open. Since we were the first there, we decided to take a stroll around the block to check out this Greenwich Village neighborhood and all the Santas that were wondering the streets of New York City that evening.
As we walked around the block, we saw a wide variety of Santas, Santa's elves, Mrs. Clauses, and other "women" who clearly were not Mrs. Claus, hanging all over Santa - if Mrs. Claus saw them, she would not approve. We found out later that apparently, the city was hosting a Santa Con. According to one website, it is a non-denominational, non-commercial, non-political and non-sensical Santa Claus convention that occurs once a year for absolutely no reason (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2225921506&v=wall).
We arrived back at the restaurant 15 minutes later and to our surprise there were 4 people standing in line. We quickly took our place in line and hoped that our walk around the block didn't hurt our chances of getting a seat at the bar. The bar was first come, first serve, so Amy strategized, as we waited in line, which seats we would take.
The doors opened and in we went - in my opinion, we got the best seats at the bar. The bartender greeted us and took our drink orders. She was very knowledgeable about the wines, made some suggestions, and let us sample several before we decided on one we liked. Amy and I like to order wines by the glass when we dine out because it gives us more opportunities to try different kinds. Babbo has a very nice wine by the glass selection. Our first glass was a Langhe Nebbiolo - the same grape used to make a Barolo. This wine had bright cherry fruit upfront, a little tannins, something like coffee, chocolate or leather on the end with a nice fairly long finish. I enjoyed this glass very much and it was much cheaper than ordering a glass of Barolo.
It was a good thing I was enjoying the wine because it eased the pain I felt when I leaned over to get my Nikon camera out of my purse to take a picture of the bottle (and our meal that was to come) and discovered my camera was missing. I had somehow lost it earlier in the day. This almost ruined my evening of food picture taking - at least I still had my iPhone so all was not totally lost. I would make do.
The bartender brought us some parmesan pepper grissini and olives. I didn't try the olives since I don't like them but the breadsticks had a very nice peppery spice to them. Amy said the olives were "big and meaty" - and since I don't eat olives, I'm not sure if this is a good thing.
First, the waiter brought out a chickpea bruschetta, Babbo's signature amuse bouche. I'm not a huge fan of chick peas but I actually liked this very much. I have no picture of this because at this point, I'm still trying to figure out how to work the flash on my iPhone. I figured it out after we ate the bruschetta.
Next, we decided to upgrade and pay the $2.50 up-charge to try premium olive oil - Cappezana's unfiltered extra-virgin Tuscan olive oil. And yes it really was that green. I did a google search to try to find more of this olive oil, and Dean and Deluca sells it- $40 for a 17 ounce bottle. The olive oil is very intense with some hints of pepper at the finish.
To maximize the number of different dishes and to try to conserve some calories, Amy and I shared appetizers and pastas.
Our first appetizer was a braised fennel salad with pears, gorgonzola piccante and cherry vinaigarette. The only remarkable thing about this dish that I remember was the cherry vinaigarette. It was very tasty. Also, it was a little disappointing that the chef didn't split our fennel salad onto two separate plates.
Next we ordered the Sarde a Beccafico, a traditional Sicilian dish of stuffed sardines. Lately, I can't seem to go to a restaurant without ordering the sardines if they have them. Babbo's sardines were stuffed with raisins, breadcrumbs, celery, eggplant and red onions. You can find the recipe for this dish here: http://www.babbonyc.com/recipe.html
The sardines were moist and perfectly cooked. The stuffing ingredients were delicious and combined nicely with the sardine's flavor profile. Now that I have the recipe, I'm looking forward to making this at home.
After consultation with the bartender, we decided to share three pastas. The chef promised to split our pastas on two separate plates. The first of the three was maccheroni alla chitarra with oven dried tomatoes, red chiles and bottarga di muggine. Not only have I never tried bottarga di muggine, I had never even heard of it. Since my evening at Babbo, I've learned that bottarga is fish roe, extracted with its membrane still intact, lightly pressed, cured in brine and dried in the sun. Bottarga di muggine is the bottarga of grey mullet. It has a briny, almost sweet flavor and I would liken it somewhat to the taste of anchovies. The pasta was cooked to perfection and truly served al dente. The bread crumbs added a nice texture and slight crunch while the bottarga di muggine added a depth of flavor to the dish that would be hard to replicate using an alternative ingredient. This pasta gets my two thumbs up (and if I had a third thumb- I would put that one up too).
My next glass of wine was the 2008 La Mozza, a wine made by Joseph Bastianich and Mario Batali in their joint winery in Tuscany's Maremma region on the west coast of Italy. This sangiovese has hints of floral on the nose, a lot of fruit up front, and finishes with licorice. I enjoyed my second glass very much.
Our second pasta was garganelli with funghi trifolati. Once again, I had ordered something I'd never heard of before - garganelli pasta - a handmade combed penne pasta made from a grated Parmesan, nutmeg, eggs and flour dough. Amy and I wondered how you would "hand make" the ridges in the pasta. Well, apparently, there is a tool called a garganelli comb that is used to make the pasta's ridges. Even though I don't remember the types of mushrooms in this dish, I think this was my favorite pasta of the evening. The simplicity of the sauce (olive oil, garlic, and parmesan cheese) enhanced the flavor of the mushrooms.
My third glass of wine - which I couldn't finish because I'm a lightweight - was a very nice Sicilian wine. It was made of 100% Nero d'Avola, a red grape native to Sicily. I don't remember too much about this wine other than it was full-bodied, very rich, and had a long finish.
Our last dish was the gnocchi with braised oxtail. Like the sarde, I tend to order gnocchi at almost every restaurant I go to that has them on their menu. The potato gnocchi were very tender as was the oxtail, which almost melted in your mouth. Babbo's gnocchi are probably somewhere in the top 10 of the best potato gnocchi that I've had (I think Palena, in Washington, DC still gets my vote for the best).
Finally, it was time for dessert and this we didn't share. I ordered the pistachio and chocolate semifreddo and Amy ordered an assortment of cheeses. Pistachios are my favorite kind of nut and this dessert was a perfect way to end my experience at Babbo except.......
....that we had one more thing coming, compliments of the chef - an assortment of cookies.
Final note: We entered the restaurant at 5:00 pm and left at approximately 8:30 pm. During that time, we received exceptional service and even with the many people waiting in the small and crowded bar to have dinner, the wait staff did not rush us. Our 3 plus hour dining experience was well worth the one hour wait to get in the door. The food, in my humble opinion, was incredible, and the atmosphere was homey and non pretentious.