A recent weekend run to New York to accompany an old friend on her first visit to Gotham produced one particularly remarkable meal at a spot we haven’t written about before. We also ate at Veselka and Jing Fong; earlier comments can be found here .
Babbo is on Waverly Place, just west of Washington Square at the foot of Fifth Avenue. (If you’re the type who’s big on celebrity-watching, the Waverly Inn, owned by Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter and so uber-hip that it has no sign outside and an unlisted phone, is next door.) Larger than it looks from the outside, Babbo is two floors of tables with a staff that moves at the dizzying pace of a kicked-over anthill. That’s not just because owner Mario Batali’s face and name are seen in print and on television, but because the world’s most famous Croc wearer insists on big-flavor food in his many kitchens. Babbo is just one of his several restaurants, all with a buzzy atmosphere.
The amuse-bouche was a couple of slices of crusty bread topped with a balsamic-dressed salad of chickpeas, sone pepper providing a little kick. It was a good beginning, paired with a Bastianich rose. Batali’s partner, Joe Bastianich, and his family (mom Lidia is a kitchen and media star in her own right) are now making their own wine, and this rose was just right on a warm night. It was light, with perhaps a hint of strawberry, crisp enough and properly chilled. The only disconcerting note was from the waiter, who seemed surprised that two women of what the French call un age certain were actually ordering a bottle rather than a couple of ladylike glasses.
We ordered two first courses and one entree, plus dessert, enough to keep us (and the waiter) happy. Babbo always has served tripe; Batali believes in organ meats. Small strips are cooked a long, long time in a spicy tomato sauce and topped with plenty of Parmigiana. This is one of the richest tripe dishes around, even more than a tripes Nicoise from a French kitchen, but it’s lush, and hard not to fill up on if you’re a tripe lover.
One of the house’s signature dishes is beef cheek ravioli. Cheek is one of those rich, unctuous bits of meat that tastes a lot better than it sounds. We’d rather expected the ravioli filling to be like bits of pot roast, but it was more finely ground, still full of meatiness. A silky goose liver sauce topped the ravioli, perhaps not the handsomest dish, but certainly deeply delicious. And then there were the lamb chops scotta ditta. "Scotta ditta" translates as "burn the fingers," and lamb chops this way are grilled quickly and servedpromptly. A half-dozen single chops stayed succulent and tender over coins of fingerling potatoes, shiitake mushrooms and asparagus, all perked up with a little lemon.
The most intriguing dessert was a corn crema, a sort of panna cotta made with the "milk" from fresh sweet corn. Light and delicate, it came with a few berries, a good close to a good meal.
Babbo remains a hot table. As in most New York restaurants, advance reservations open up a month ahead, and good luck even getting beyond the busy signal and to the reservationist through a rather complicated phone system. We had tried to get a table from the day we planned the journey, but had no luck. When we arrived in Manhattan, we called several times in hope of a cancellation, but that also yielded nothing. On impulse (which is why there are no photos) and knowing that sometimes this can work, we presented our properly dressed selves at the restaurant about 6:15 and threw ourselves on the mercy of the staff.
It turns out that Babbo saves eight seats near the front door for walk-ins. And that, dear reader, is how someone without a reservation gets a table at Babbo.
110 Waverly Place (between MacDougal Place and Sixth Ave.)
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair access: Very poor