Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Going Back to His Roots,

Batali Slings Pizza, 5th Ave.–Style

If you come for dinner at Otto, Mario Batali’s new pizzeria and wine bar in Greenwich Village, expect to wait at least an hour for your table, maybe even two. Two hours for a pizza? Only a superstar chef on the top rung of superstardom, with his own TV show, best-selling cookbook and recipes in the Dining In/Out section (and who is co-owner, with Joseph Bastianich, of Babbo, Lupa and Esca), would dare.

When you walk into Otto, a hostess hands you a card with the name of an Italian town, such as Salerno or Rimini, printed on it. The name will eventually be chalked up on a blackboard by the desk when your table is ready. “Have a drink while you’re waiting,” the hostess said, motioning to the front room, which is given over to a long bar dominated by a clock that had stopped (perhaps happily so, taking patrons’ minds off the minutes or hours ticking by as they wait to be seated).

Marble counters, like the ones you see in Italian railway stations, are placed about the room, which at night is as jammed as a rush-hour platform when the train is late. But instead of cursing the transport system, the crowd here is whiling away the time over pitchers of wine and plates of antipasti. They look hip and interesting, like the sort of people who used to come to 1 Fifth Avenue in its heyday (can that have been 25 years ago?), and the energy is high. One evening, an Eminem clone in a wool hat was sitting at a counter sharing a crock of eggplant caponata with a friend who was dressed the same. Maybe it was Eminem. Nearby, a Japanese woman with waist-length hair was wearing only a strapless white cotton tunic and jeans. On this freezing night, her bare shoulders looked out of place next to those of her date, who had kept on his overcoat. The bar at Otto is a scene, destined to become the neighborhood’s new singles hangout. It’s probably a great place to pick someone up-if you can make yourself heard above the din. I’ve read that noisy restaurants make people drink more. Otto must be selling a great deal of wine. And why not? The wine list is excellent. Messrs. Batali and Bastianich have put together a selection of close to 500 regional Italian wines. Interesting choices are also offered by the “quartino,” pitchers equal to about a third of a bottle, and many bottles are priced between $20 and $50.

Otto is a casual restaurant, and the décor of the dining room, which seats 150, is minimal. The room has a low ceiling and black marble floors. The walls, which are painted brick-red, are lined with racks of wine. It’s like the Spartan dining room of a modern hotel. During the day, sunlight pours through the windows (alas, making the room oppressively hot). If you arrive early for lunch, you don’t have to wait for a table, and it’s more of a family restaurant on weekends during the day.

Sir Michael Caine, who used to be a restaurateur on the side, once said that if you started customers off with good bread and gave them good coffee to finish, they’d forget what they’d had in between. At Otto, (apart from the bread and the coffee, which are fine), you start off with great vegetables and finish with great gelato. The pizza that comes in the middle is incidental. This is a surprise; after all, Mr. Batali got his start slinging pizza.

But first, the antipasti. The bru-schetta changes daily. Toppings include garlicky white beans seasoned with balsamic vinegar, or a spread of eggplant with chili and mint. On Saturday, the special is “lilies” (named after one of the owner’s children, not the flower), a pungent mix of stewed leeks, onions and garlic. Lardo-cured salt-pork fatback-comes as a topping on bruschetta and pizza. You can feel the cholesterol coursing through your veins as you eat it. I’m not sure I want a whole pizza with this smoky white bacon, but it’s great as a bruschetta. The pickled vegetables, which are served in ceramic ramekins, are also exceptional: sweet-and-sour eggplant caponata with olives and artichokes tossed in olive oil with whole almonds in their skins, caramelized salsify with “saba” (wine must), and cauliflower alla Siciliana.

Salads include beets with goat cheese, red onion slivers tossed with romaine lettuce, and a lovely winter mix of celery root cut into matchsticks and served with red and white grapefruit and celery leaves-a signature Batali touch. In addition to platters of the sort of first-rate salumeria that made Lupa and Babbo famous, you can order crocks of marinated seafood such as swordfish poached in olive oil, octopus in tomato sauce, scungilli or mussels. The panelle-squares of fried mashed chickpeas-are also very good. On Fridays, you can get my favorite: fried whitebait with fried sage and parsley.

And now to the pizzas: They’re the size of a large plate and cooked on the griddle. There are 20 to choose from, including a special of the day, and the list is divided between trendy and conservative. Conservative folk (and children) can stick to pizza margherita, pepperoni or even pizza topped with nothing but olive oil and sea salt. On the more ambitious side, there’s a choice of fennel and bottarga (gray mullet roe), clams with chilis and garlic, or chard with goat cheese. One day I tried a special of prosciutto with balsamic vinegar and olive oil; another night I had one topped with tiny meatballs. But I found the crusts a disappointment: not quite thin enough, not quite light and crispy enough. Not, in fact, as good as those at Gonzo a few blocks away.

For $4 apiece, you can finish the meal with cheese paired with fruit or a sweet, such as Parmigana Reggiano with saba, pecorino with honey, or gorgonzola dolce with sour cherries. These are nice to have with a glass of wine.

Otto makes its own gelati, and they’re the best I’ve had anywhere-even in Italy. If you’ve never tasted olive oil gelato (and I bet you haven’t), don’t miss it: It’s a wonderful, rich, smooth concoction sprinkled with crystals of Malden sea salt and served with blood oranges. The creamy risotto gelato topped with bits of praline is also great, as is the ricotta with walnuts and figs. As with the pizzas, you can opt for more conventional flavors, and they’re equally good-for example, chocolate with the texture of a creamy mousse, hazelnut and lemon.

Otto is lively, noisy and fun. The fact that people are willing to wait so long for a table is less a comment on the pizza than on Mr. Batali’s reputation. Begin your meal with his incredible vegetables and end with the ice cream, and you won’t care what came in between. Dining out with Moira Hodgson