New York Times’ Pete Wells Returns to Babbo

From three to two stars for the original Mario Batali-Joe Bastianich restaurant
Babbo NYC

Kelly Campbell 

The paper of record visits Babbo for a third time.

Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich are household names these days. The restaurant-opening duo spawned an empire that all began at the West Village’s Babbo, and The New York Times’ critics have visited that flagship on numerous occasions through the years. Ruth Reichl first reviewed the ambitious Italian spot in August 1998 and lauded the restaurant with three stars. The first menu was ambitious and pasta-centric.

In a time when chances are rarely taken, when menus are made by focus groups and too many restaurants cater to the bottom line, Babbo is a breath of fresh air. Risk-taking restaurants tend to feed the very wealthy, but Babbo is meant for those in the middle: It is moderately priced with two seven-course tasting menus at less than $50 each.

Frank Bruni returned in June 2004. At that time, he praised the care and attention each dish received. Waiters spoke effusively over the addition of breadcrumbs to the bavette.

Bavette, which are slender siblings to fettucine, formed the base of a recent pasta special, and they arrived with plenty of good company: immaculately virgin olive oil, red-hot peppers, fresh ramps, pecorino. At most restaurants, and for most chefs, that would suffice.

Not at Babbo, and not for Mario Batali. Our waiter circled back, explaining that the dish languished a step shy of its full potential, beatified but not yet sanctified, an act he swooped to perform. On went the bread crumbs, for more texture, more richness — just plain more.

Now, nearly two decades since Babbo opened, Batali and Bastianich have partnered on about two dozen restaurants. Some of the same dishes remain on Babbo’s menu: Beef cheek ravioli was praised in each review. In the most recent review, Pete Wells still praises the pastas but says some of the dishes that have remained for 20 years seem to be dialed in, as does the service.

Now that he’s superfamous, Mr. Batali could probably pump up the prices at Babbo. He hasn’t. That’s one reason Babbo is still one of New York’s essential restaurants. But it isn’t quite the same restaurant. The cooking doesn’t always have the old finesse and bravado that my colleague Frank Bruni found when he gave the restaurant three stars in 2004, when it was last reviewed in The Times. The service, meanwhile, can go in and out of focus more than it used to.

That’s not to say the menu doesn’t change. The owners seem to recognize how continuity can work in their favor. The kitchen staff is also long-serving.

Mr. Batali discusses changes to the menu every week with Frank Langello, Babbo’s executive chef since 2003. Mr. Langello’s kitchen is run by professionals who seem to know by instinct when to take meat off the flame; even tricky ingredients like rabbit were faultlessly done. Given how many classic dishes are on the menu, the cooks could probably make half of them with their eyes closed. Sometimes you wonder if they do.

These glitches were far from catastrophic, but they were frustrating because I could usually imagine, or remember, just how good the dish was supposed to be.

Twenty years is a long time. A lot changes and a lot stays the same. Wells seems to lament the loss of adventure that pervaded from his first visit, when his waiter offered up the last goat’s head available for the evening.

Still, I keep thinking about goat’s head. In those early days, I knew Babbo could ace the weird stuff. I’m not sure I trust the restaurant the same way today. Then again, I’m not sure I want another goat’s head, either.

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What does Batali think of the review?