Had I visited Babbo but a few months ago, I could have waxed poetic about how, as one enters the doors of the gracious former West Village stable house, through brocaded curtains into a hard-partying cathedral of culinary splendor, the light glows divine and the stereo blasts R.E.M. It would have been a paean to pasta, an encomium of agnolotti, a panegyric to panna cotta. Had the muse sung in me, as it sung in the New Yorker’s Bill Buford— Mario Batali’s Boswell, who more or less made the man with his book Heat! — more than a decade ago, I might have exalted Babbo and its flame-headed creator, a son of Dionysus and Seattle named Mario. Praise be unto the house built of flour and water.
It’s easy to see why Buford cast Batali as his Hemingway-ian hero. The man behind Babbo — incidentally the Tuscan word for papa — had rescued Italian food from both the red-sauce ghetto and the unambitious luxury of Il Mulino and its ilk on the other side of Washington Square Park. He had spread himself like ’nduja into the West Village with Otto and Lupa Osteria Romana and positioned himself as the profane savior of vera cucina italiana. He worked and lived and partied in the Village, zooming through the narrow streets — a big man in orange clogs on a tiny bike, half SNL send-up, half commedia dell’arte. Then came more restaurants like Bar Jamón and Casa Mono, La Sirena and Del Posto; even larger deals; television shows with Gwyneth Paltrow; television shows without Gwyneth Paltrow; a library of books; more restaurants; a piece of the Spotted Pig; Eataly, a massive Italian emporium; products from orange clogs to pasta sauces; and a production company, no joke, called Alta Via, the High Road. Mario Batali was too big to fail.
But that was then. In late December, after Eater revealed allegations of sexual harassment by the chef, Batali was banished from his own castle and Babbo entered the bardo, that cosmic Buddhist waiting room where sins and mitzvot are tallied. “Revelations,” ha! What soft-shoe self-exculpatory hogwash I find myself peddling. What was revealed wasn’t Batali’s behavior but our long-standing tolerance of it. Go back and reread Heat!, because if that isn’t a slavering apologia for a creep, written by a pie-eyed prig for the delectation of the inner men’s-rights activist that lurks in the hearts of all bourgeoisie, I don’t know what is!
In the fall, cast out too was Frank Langello, Babbo’s longtime lieutenant and chef at Babbo who, in an almost touching act of idolatry, imitated his boss’s inappropriate touching. Joe Bastianich, another partner at Babbo, has come in for censure for comments that can only be described as deplorable and, more damningly, for knowing lots and doing nothing to stay Batali’s lech. As it happens, Babbo was built on a lot more than flour and water. It was a boys’ club in which many women were viewed as little more than skirt steak, which, coincidentally, appears on the menu today, barbecued, with endives alla piastra — that is, grilled — and is, like everything I ate on a pair of recent visits to Babbo, delicious.
How do we solve a problem like Babbo? What to make of the $95 pasta tasting menu, still one of the best surveys of pasta’s promise in the city? Whither its tangle of jet-black tagliatelle tossed with crisp pancetta, and what of the sunny UES-via-Vicenza casunzei, half-moons of brightly colored ravioli stuffed with beets and topped with scallions and a peppy poppyseed sauce? Where does one cram or cache, how does one launder or withdraw the joy that comes from Babbo’s kitchen, now that the kitchen has been shown to be an ethical Superfund site? Into what secret moral pockets does one slip the floppy tricorner ravioli, stuffed with crushed squab liver and beef cheek, buried under a flurry of black truffle? Is even the straightforward pleasure of an appetizer of fresh marinated sardines drizzled with lobster oil, pinwheels of headless fillets arranged like a small fish mandala, tainted by the untoward actions of the hands of the man that made them?
With Batali gone and Langello axed, the new man in the kitchen is Rob Zwirz — a “very Zen guy,” according to the tie-wearing bartender — who came from Lupa Osteria Romana across the park. Zwirz has been well-trained. From a gustatory perspective, Babbo has lost none of its zing. Special mention must be made too of the work of Rebecca DeAngelis, Babbo’s pastry chef, who zhuzhes staid offerings like tiramisu in a perfect discus of cacao and espresso and tops a silky vanilla panna cotta with huckleberry compote.
But I cannot speak of DeAngelis’s work without thinking of Isaac Franco Nava, a former pastry chef who was fired in 2017, hounded out by years of homophobic and racist harassment. Nava sued Batali et al. for discrimination, alleging, among other things, that DeAngelis, his supervisor, did nothing to stop it.
Perhaps because we — me! yes, me too — celebrated Batali’s prodigal persona as integral to his prodigal flavors, Babbo’s hidebound menu serves as a damning bill of indictment. Every squab liver crushed; every cow’s tongue charred or sweetbread dusted with fennel; every act of culinary bravado summons from the shadows its ballast, that inexcusable act which we chose not to see because, damn, the man knows from flavor.
On a recent Monday night, Babbo’s dining room was buzzing with people who either didn’t know or didn’t care that the chef de maison had been run out of town. In the most charitable reading of the situation, perhaps they had read that Batali had “stepped away” from his businesses and had assumed this put them in the clear. But to “step away” is as vague and ill-defined an act as sending thoughts and prayers. There is no legal or financial implication to “stepping away.” Mario Batali gently wafted away from his businesses, he hoochie coo’d, he saut de basqued. There are many ways to step. What he hasn’t done is divest. And what that means is that a non-negligible fraction of the monies one leaves on the white tablecloth at the end of the meal finds its way into Batali’s pocket. He is not here, but his dividends are. His sins squeeze through the tables. He is a hungry ghost.
Arguments can and have been made that avoiding Babbo — or, for that matter, John Besh’s restaurants or Ken Friedman’s or the enterprises of any of the other chefs, artists, businessmen, producers, showrunners, actors, singers, politicians, sculptors, photographers, editors, writers, illustrators, entrepreneurs that have been called out for harassment — just punishes those who have already been victimized: the employees. Surely not every member of the waitstaff or kitchen staff at Babbo is guilty. And despite glib claims otherwise, restaurant jobs don’t grow on trees. There would be real disruption to lives and families if everyone boycotted Babbo. Burn it all down and years of wisdom and genius become ash too.
But the question is: Who lit the match? Certainly not the patron who wishes to avoid supporting a predator. Batali built his foundations rotten, buried in Babbo a secret bomb, stank up the place with his moral flatulence. Our responsibility isn’t to provide sin absorption, by frequenting the place out of misguided noblesse oblige for his staff. Our responsibility is not to eat the fruit — or farfalle — of a poison tree. If Babbo fails, this is the inexorable ripening of karma, the late-onset mortalities of years of depravity. The blame, like the money, flows to Batali.
There is, however, a glimpse of how Babbo is reborn. In the Buddhist tradition, one of the kindest things one can do to a dead person is to tell them they have died. This allows them to enter more quickly into the bardo. It convinces them to unpry from this life the cold fingers of ambition, the grasping of ego in rigor mortis. I can see why Batali might dread that calculus. But his ghost haunts Babbo these chill nights, spoiling the extra-virgin olive oil and tainting the pasta. Someone should whisper in his ear that he has died. For it is time for him to go. And until he does, Babbo will remain lost in limbo.