New York — COULD it be a culinary case of the seven-year itch?
New York City's love affair with Mario Batali began in 1998 when Batali opened his flagship restaurant off Washington Square, Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca. The bond strengthened and deepened as the chef opened a string of six other Manhattan hotspots and an Italian wine shop. But now this romance has hit a bit of a snag.
Lately, just as Batali has opened an ambitious new restaurant and is poised to open another in Los Angeles with Nancy Silverton at Highland and Melrose avenues -- his first outside Manhattan -- he finds himself besieged. He's the target of critics' endless wisecracks. He's enmeshed in eviction proceedings at the new restaurant. And more to the point, he has offended the sensibilities of New Yorkers with a sign out front: Valet parking $29.
Seven years ago, the city's food-loving cognoscenti quickly fell for the red-headed, shorts-wearing chef, impressed by the risks he took in the name of gastronomy. Who else would have the nerve to offer lamb's tongues and calf's brains and testa (head cheese)? OK, so at Babbo, more people probably ordered the spicy lamb sausage-filled pasta packages called "mint love letters" or the beef-cheek ravioli. But foodies were thrilled by the culinary bravado and sense of adventure, the fabulous pastas and white anchovies and octopus. They were so smitten they even tolerated a sound system that blasted Led Zeppelin.
Restaurant after restaurant followed, always generating critical acclaim and popular zeal. Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich opened Lupa, the casual downtown trattoria, in 1999. Esca, the theater district seafood spot that introduced Americans to crudos, Italian raw fish appetizers, followed in 2000. Three years later, Otto, the inexpensive Greenwich Village pizzeria with a list of 600 wines, was an instant hit. They opened Casa Mono, the Spanish taverna on Irving Place later that year, along with Bar Jamon for tapas right around the corner. And in January 2005 came Bistro du Vent, the theater district French place where chef Laurent Gras (last seen cooking at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco) is cooking under the radar.
Wine has always been an important part of the equation: The restaurants have terrific lists that feature unusual Italian bottles at reasonable prices. Instead of wines by the glass, they offer the cuarto: a 250-milliliter pour that comes in a little pitcher -- about a glass and a half. When Batali and Bastianich, who together own a vineyard in Tuscany, introduced the cuarto in 2000 at Esca, it felt, to wine-loving New Yorkers, eminently generous of spirit. If that's not love, what is?
By the end of last year, as Batali and Bastianich were preparing to open what would be Batali's seventh restaurant (with a new partner, Bastianich's mother Lidia Bastianich), a hugely ambitious $12-million dining palace in the meatpacking district called Del Posto, it seemed as though the chef had taken over Manhattan. (Though Batali and Bastianich are partners in all the restaurants, they often have other partners directly involved in each. Beside Lidia Bastianich, Del Posto's executive chef Mark Ladner is also a partner.)
But Del Posto seems to be somehow cursed. It's not just that the luxurious 24,000 square-foot, multilevel, 145-seat dining room didn't get the four stars from the New York Times that Batali very publicly proclaimed he was aiming for (in a documentary on Food Network). Critics all around town have been lambasting it -- from the New Yorker to New York magazine to the Daily News and the New York Post to TimeOutNY.
Their gripes? The fussy, pretentious, often inexpert service. The stools for ladies' purses. Parmesan specialists and chocolate sommeliers roaming the floor. The $60 risotto for two. The $95 rack of veal for two. The $24 cup of "cave-aged" Chinese tea. The pici, the pasta dish with coxcombs, chicken livers, black truffles and duck testicles. Yes, duck testicles.
And the look of the room. "New York's design-mad restaurant scene has finally lost its marbles," wrote Steve Cuozzo in the New York Post, in a February story with the headline "Bum and Bummer." He decried the "rug-joint setting like a 1940s Jersey ballroom."
In New York magazine, restaurant critic Adam Platt called Del Posto "Batali's conspicuous, somewhat strained attempt to put Italian cooking on the same high level as French cuisine."
In its March 27 issue, the New Yorker called the place "preposterous," deploring its "extreme pomp," which critic Nick Paumgarten wrote "can feel like a put-on, as though this were the setting for a reality show in which celebrity chefs compete to see who can charge out-of-towners the most for offal."