Penne From Heaven

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This is a story about a lumpy guy with a funny name who cracks jokes as he cooks amazing food. This is not a story about Emeril Lagasse.

They say success comes at a price, and for Mario Batali the price is this: despite his three always-booked restaurants in New York City, the breathless reviews from critics, a new Food Network show debuting next week (to complement his first, which is still airing), two cookbooks, a lovely family and a clean bill of health after surviving a brain aneurysm, Batali is always the other great American chef.

Which is too bad. Not because Batali cries into his pickled vegetable salad about his friend Lagasse's success. He doesn't. (When asked about Lagasse, Batali pauses and then begins, "He's the most famous chef of all time"--which, depending on how you think about it, isn't necessarily a compliment.)

The comparison between the two is wrong because they are after completely different things. Lagasse is, as Batali puts it, "more of a showman," hollering "bam!" and cooking up "wicked peach cobbler" with diva Patti LaBelle, a recent guest on Emeril Live. On a typical installment of Molto Mario a couple of weeks ago, the only guests were three quiet friends of Batali's, who never once cheered but instead asked about the struffoli (drab Italian pastries), "Would you want to use powdered sugar on these?" To which Batali's answer was no, unless you want to depart from the simple greatness of Neapolitan cooking. Lagasse would have upturned a whole box of the sweet stuff, and those in his studio audience would have leapt from their seats in ecstasy.

Not that Batali is boring. He's just shockingly down to earth for such a talented cook in this era of celebrity chefdom. He wears shorts and weird shoes (usually orange clogs or Chuck Taylors), doesn't get his madcap red hair cut often enough, talks about football a lot and includes more sausage in his recipes than a healthy person should consume.

But Batali cares deeply about something that many far-flung restaurant impresarios seem to discount: the food on the plate. Batali may have grown up in suburban Seattle and may extol the virtues of a 10 a.m. beer, but the shlubby act can't really disguise his seriousness about food. Not cooking techniques, mind you, but food. Batali's books and shows don't offer the most complicated recipes (though it will take you several hours to succeed with the gnocchi in his recent book Holiday Food). Rather, Batali proselytizes about using the freshest ingredients--only mozzarella that comes in whole pound chunks swimming in their own water; only bread crumbs made from today's bread ("day old tastes like day old"); only home-made testa.

Testa? That's headcheese, which Batali defines this way: "You take everything north of the shoulder on a pig--the eyebrows, a big hunk of nostril, all that good stuff--and put it in a pot." Boil and serve as an appetizer--for $10, at Batali's flagship restaurant, Babbo.

The testa is far better than it sounds--like a fatty but delicately flavored sausage, topped with a little vinegar salad for bite. But is that really what passes for fine food in New York City? No, and that's Batali's point: he is serving dishes most fancy restaurants in the U.S. wouldn't dare to put before high-paying customers.

He does this for three reasons. One, most Babbo customers are rich Manhattanites spoiled by big hunks of filet mignon and Alaskan halibut. "Testa brings a depth you don't get by using the biggest, best cut of meat," Batali says. Two, as he says in his new show, Mario Eats Italy--shot on location in the motherland--Batali believes that the true basis of a lot of Italian cooking is poverty. Those who can't afford much don't waste something as precious as pig lips. Three, Batali thinks it's funny to serve headcheese for 10 bucks.

Batali doesn't charge a fortune for his delectable meals. Though Babbo can easily set you back $60 a person before drinks, you can dine at his other two New York City restaurants, Esca and Lupa, for half that, which is cheap in Manhattan for top-notch meals. (One midtown restaurant offers a prix-fixe dinner for $160.)

Batali has had offers to open ristorantes in other cities, and he may one day, but he doesn't like to be more than an hour from his kitchens. He and his business partner do have a wine shop in New York (the Italian Wine Merchant, of course). Next summer, he may open an ice-cream shop, where the servers will use a flat spatula, not a scoop, just as they do in Italy.

For a regular guy, in other words, Batali can get pretty fussy. And he has a rather extravagant sense of the role cooking can play in our lives. In Holiday Food, he talks of his family's joy at coming together to chop and blanch and bake and consume. When he was a kid, he says, "any meals served at our house were mapped out at least a month in advance." To many home cooks who can barely heat up a pizza after a long day, Batali's heavenly kitchen may sound like hell.

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