Can’t Get in Tonight? Get Over It! Babbo Is Worth the Wait

After months of trying, I finally managed to get into Babbo on the night of Hurricane Floyd. It was raining pretty heavily, but the restaurant was far from empty. Neither Floyd nor Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had been issuing dire warnings from his waterproof command post all day long, was going to deter Babbo’s most fanatical patrons from their evening bowl of pasta. There had been a cancellation when I’d called in the afternoon, and that is how I managed to get in at the normal dinner hour–7:45 P.M. instead of 11 P.M.

Since it opened just over a year ago on Waverly Place, Babbo has been a hot ticket. The premises were formerly the Coach House, a clubby-looking place in a 150-year-old building that was part of the Wanamaker estates. The old restaurant was James Beard’s favorite restaurant, but he would hardly recognize the premises now. Where once it was brick walls and red painted trim, decorated with 19th-century oil paintings of food and landscapes, it is now totally changed. Apart from the original brass-railed central staircase, it has been gutted and painted yellow downstairs and white upstairs. The room upstairs, the former hayloft, is as plain as a Quaker meeting house (“The perfect background for people dressed in black,” commented a friend archly). Instead of the food for which the Coach House was celebrated–wholesome American dishes such as corn sticks, roast beef and pecan pie–these days Babbo’s customers happily tuck into head cheese, fresh anchovies, warm lamb’s tongues and brains.

In fact, Beard would probably have approved wholeheartedly–at least of the food. The restaurant is owned by Joseph Bastianich (who also owns Felidia, Becco and Frico with his mother, Lydia Bastianich) and Mario Batali, the chef and owner of Po, a pocket-sized Italian restaurant on Cornelia Street, and the star of his own show on the TV Food Network. At Po, Mr. Batali’s cooking did not impress me as much as I wanted it to. I liked his rustic, gutsy style, but I felt the dishes weren’t always quite there. At Babbo, though, the food is another story. The dishes are daring and original, using ingredients that may be unfamiliar to Americans in exciting ways.

The wine list, too, is unusual, with many interesting choices from little-known vineyards. I was less impressed with our sommelier on Floyd night, and not just because his eyeglasses were like Philip Johnson’s and he sported one of those tiny pubic triangles under his lower lip. When we asked for one of the few white wines on the list which was under $30, he said he was out of it but could recommend something similar, and pointed to a bottle that cost over $100. The markup in reds is ridiculously high, too. But there are good choices by the glass (actually you get a “quartino,” a small decanter that is put before you with a wine glass that’s almost bigger).

Our waiter felt that everything on the menu was wonderful and pushed us skillfully toward ordering a middle course of pasta and side dishes to boot. A restaurant manager I know introduced me to the expression “building the check.” This is something they do very skillfully at Babbo.

But all this aside, we did eat very well, starting with the crostini topped with chickpeas and tapenade that are brought to the table when you sit down. A delicate frittata of zucchini flowers topped with greens was as wonderful as our waiter had said it would be. (Earlier in the year, on a late-night visit, I’d tasted Mr. Batali’s spring version of eggs, a marvelous sweet-pea custard flan topped with sweet-pea leaves and circled with fresh peas.)

No one who eats here, no matter how much they think they hate anchovies from the can or bottle, should miss them when they are on the menu. The fresh, silvery fillets are served with beans or with yellow finn potatoes and a dash of lobster oil. You’ll be hard pressed not to ask for more.

Years ago, in doing the research for an article on tripe–something I love but about which my editor at the time was unconvinced–I ate it one freezing night at the old Coach House. It was very good then, but not a patch on the version served here by Mr. Batali today. It was great, cut in soft slivers cooked in a lightly spicy dark red sauce, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and accompanied by thick, oiled crusts of grilled country bread. Even my friends who thought they hated tripe loved it.

Not surprisingly, the pasta dishes at Babbo are hardly run-of-the-mill, and there is even a pasta tasting menu: five pastas and two desserts. I loved the delicate sheets of ravioli stuffed with foie gras and served in a balsamic vinegar and brown butter sauce. But I was disappointed in the special ravioli of the day, which was made with calf’s brains sprinkled with sage leaves and butter. The filling was underseasoned. But mint “love letters,” small packets of dough filled with spicy lamb sausage, were the opposite, deliciously spicy and assertive. Spaghetti alla chitarra, made with tomato, capers and bread crumbs, was scrumptious.

One of Mr. Batali’s greatest dishes was the grilled branzino, which is cooked whole and served with a herb salad and a pungent sauce made with lemon peel. It also comes with a side dish of crispy roasted potatoes. Striped bass was also delicious, with artichokes and a pungent sauce of tomatoes and anchovies.

Rabbit stewed with olives was surprisingly dull compared with other dishes, such as the juicy grilled quail with wilted chard and the duck, tender meaty slices under a crisp skin, in a sherry vinaigrette with golden beets that could have been cooked a bit longer.

Our waiter brought us coffee and petits fours before the dessert, but when the latter came we were so impressed we forgot about the freebies. The cheesecake was extraordinary, made with maple, mascarpone and blackberries in a crust and served with an intense caramelized maple sauce. There was also a soufflé-like chocolate hazelnut cake with orange sauce, and a chocolate and pistachio semifreddo. Saffron panna cotta with plums, candied fennel and plum sorbetto was the work of a genius.

When we left the restaurant, which at 11 o’clock was still as bustling as it was on other nights, the rain had stopped entirely. The streets were deserted. All day, as the city was emptying out and shops and restaurants were closing up, I had remembered Noel Coward’s remark, “The show must go on! Why ?”

I was glad that at Babbo, at least, that was not the attitude.

Babbo

* * *

110 Waverly Place (near Sixth Avenue)

686-8787

Dress: Casual chic

Noise Level: High

Wine List: Excellent, interesting Italian choices, high prices

Credit Cards: All major cards

Price Range: Main courses $16 to $29

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M., Sunday 5 P.M. to 11 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor