When my friend Anto in Bologna calls out "Babbo!" it has a clipped yet melodic ring, whether she's admonishing or expressing affection for her goofy father.
Now that we've finally fully experienced Babbo restaurant, the word will never be the same.
This was the meal we came to New York for. With the exception of the shall we say, overly casual folks next to us (c'mon people, step it up a little!), all the elements at Babbo converge to create an experience that's comfortable and simultaneously says "super special meal." And the food friggin' rocks.
The only off-putting feature of Babbo is the bathrooms. Restroom dcor shares a couple things in common with the activities that take place within: framed old clippings about the Coach House, the occupant of the Waverly Place space in days past, charm the, um, pants off of ya, while the Home Depot McMansion "old world stone" style bathroom tiles have also gotta go.
I began with the baby carciofi special (pictured above right), lightly fried with a shot of lemon and tender as can be. As I already mentioned, H's octopus appetizer was completely amazing.
Lamb's tongue accompanied by a mild vinaigrette with hedgehogs and a soft boiled egg oozed fatty richness. Unlike the time we unwittingly ate lamb's tongue at Carousel in Glendale, we were excited to try the dish. Delicious, but no way could I polish off the entire plate.
Rarely are orecchiette prepared properly. Too often they stick together, or are formulated with the improper flour instead of the right semolina, so why bother? (Oh, someday I must return to the trattoria in Bari where I tasted them for the first time!) My assumption that these "little ears" were are by the right hands was correct. The fennel seed flavor in sweet sausage at first overwhelms the dish; I tried to tune it out and focus on the rapini. Still, in the end the flavors balance themselves quite nicely.
"Mint Love Letters" are creamy and robust, full of sausage and other goodness and piquant herbal notes. The real true star of the menu, however, is Babbo's signature pasta dish: beef cheek ravioli (pictured right). This dish leaves any meat lover reeling, regardless of your feelings about offal. In concert with good friends Squab Liver and Black Truffle (just imagine them sitting at Batali's televised kitchen counter), this item is among the most luscious, overall perfect pasta creations ever. Following the pasta I had the overly salty fresh peas with thick cut pancetta. The veggie delight doesn't come close Lupa's fabulous fresh peas with mint. The fluke special was also troppo salato. Fortunately these disappoints added up to a very minor bump in the overall picture. Jim and H split the hen of the woods secondo; an interesting dish, if not as satisfying as all the primi.
The wine list of Italian vintages is simply exhaustive. And exhausting. Though temped to order a bottle of Pigato (Ali and Jim grew to love it when they visited Liguria last year), we polished off a bottle of a too robust red that frankly, I forgot to make proper note of. I want to say it was piemontese, but because it didn't interest me much I spaced.
For reasons about which we neglected to inquire, wine not decanted like some others. But the sommelier "primes" each glass with a few drops before the contents of the bottle is properly dispensed. Classy touch! I'm easily impressed. (Glad to spot a Carema label pictured in the "sommelier's picks" link; I love this nebbiolo based wine,
i.e. an excellent wannabe Barolo for about half the price.)
Desserts at Babbo are marvelous. I'm a fan of just about any semifreddo, ice cream's slightly icier, less emulsified, lighter first cousin. And to honor this chocolate and pistachio puck swathed in more silken chocolate, I'd spin cartwheels and shout cheers while tossing pompoms about.
The gelato sampler is irresistibly cute, with each dainty scoop nestled in its own cozy egg cup. The goods live up to the presentation. Chocolate proves to be the winning flavor, and the tingly tartness of pink grapefruit gelato is so pleasing. Vanilla is actually somewhat of a disappointment; it just tastes inexplicably odd. The subtle quiet flavor of saffron panna cotta beautifully makes itself known without being run over by the mango pairings. Jim loved his rhubarb tart, too.
Even though daylight lingered through most of our 5:45 early bird dinner -- a weird feeling for us Spanish time eaters -- we managed to outlast our neighbors. And while we weren't ordering top-shelf wines or breaking the bank, we never felt rushed out to accommodate bigger spending customers. Our waiter's tips were totally right-on and much appreciated.
But next time it's the pasta tasting menu -- no further recommendations needed.