A couple months ago, my friend Steph asked me what was in Spaghetti all’Amatriciana, which just so happens to be one of my favorite Italian dishes. The minimalist combination of tomato sauce, fried pancetta and chili flake tossed with noodles (usually spaghetti or bucatini) is comfort food at its simplest and best.
I first fell in love with Amatriciana when it was a regular menu item at Buca di Beppo, the chain of kitschy, obnoxious, family-style Italian-American restaurants. I would have been happy replicating something similar to that version, but I was extremely pleased to see that Babbo Ristorante had posted their recipe online.
Mainly due to laziness and because guanciale is not the readily available at Safeway, I took a few liberties with the ingredients. I picked up a box of Trader Joe’s Italian Tomato Starter Sauce, which I felt was basic enough to use instead of making a batch of tomato sauce as outlined in the original recipe. I also picked up some chopped pancetta because I couldn’t find whole or sliced pancetta. You can substitute bacon in a pinch, but you’ll get a much bolder flavor than intended. (which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it…) I used bucatini (thick round noodle with a hole in it) for this attempt, but my wife’s not a big fan of bucatini, so next time I do this, I’ll just use regular spaghetti.
Overall, this dish was really easy to make and the final results were great. If you’re not into spicy food, then adjust the amount of chili flakes to taste. Also, the Trader Joe’s Starter Sauce is a shortcut I’ll gladly take when making this dish again.
In the world of celebrity chefs, Mario Batali was never really one of my favorites, but I always respected his culinary skills (especially on Iron Chef America) and appreciated the joy he gets bringing “authentic” Italian food to the masses. But on our last trip to New York in May, the one place everyone kept telling us to go was Mario’s flagship restaurant, Babbo.
Because of its popularity, getting a table at Babbo is challenging. They take reservations 30 calendar days in advance, and when I called, the phone was busy for hours before I got through to a reservationist. The only seating times open were 5:30 and something after 9pm, so we took the early seating.
We arrived for our 5:30pm reservation and were seated upstairs, which I think is preferable to the darker downstairs because the sun was still out and brightened up the room through the enormous skylight. We fell for the old antipasti, primi, secondi” format of dining, which was fine because it let us sample a lot of the menu. We ordered three antipasti, one primi to split and we each got our own secondi. Our menu consisted of:
Asparagus “Milanese” with Duck Egg and Parmigiano
Warm Lamb’s Tongue Vinaigrette with Chanterelles and a 3-Minute Egg
Grilled Octopus with “Borlotti Marinati” and Spicy Limoncello Vinaigrette
Maccheroni alla Chitarra
with Oven Dried Tomatoes, Red Chiles and Bottarga di Muggine (Grey Mullet Roe)
Barbecued Skirt Steak with Asparagus “alla Piastra” and Salsa Verde
Roasted Veal Loin coiled in Sage and Housemade Pancetta and served with Caramelized Cauliflower (the nightly special)
Tilefish cooked with Pancetta and Giant Leeks
Of the antipasti, the grilled octopus was the standout. It was charred perfectly but had a sweetness to it that was an amazing combination. The asparagus was thick and it was perfectly cooked (you know how most restaurants overcook asparagus so that it’s limp and mushy? NOT here.) The lamb’s tongue was good, very tasty, and not as weird as it sounds.
The highlight of the meal might have been the primi. The Maccheroni alla Chitarra was at once spicy, salty and sweet (leaning towards spicy) and it was amazing. This was split between the three of us, but I was longing for a whole bowl all to myself.
After an amazing first two courses, the secondi were all just pretty good, but nothing really amazing. My wife liked her fish but wasn’t blown away by it. Our friend’s skirt steak was good and the pesto sauce it came with was really nice, but she ordered it medium well, so it was a bit chewy and probably would have been better cooked medium rare or medium. The veal loin wrapped in pancetta was probably the best of the three (I mean, it was wrapped in pancetta!), but I think that sans pancetta it would have been average.
Things picked up again for dessert. The warm chocolate cake was served with a hazelnut gelato that was amazing. The blueberry/coconut crostata with buttermilk gelato was awesome and by the blueberries tartness, you could tell that they were fresh. The warm pineapple cake was extremely sweet, but it wasn’t overpowering and a nice contrast to the other desserts.
Presentation of all the dishes was gorgeous, as it should be at a place like this. I have to say that one dish caught my eye multiple times as it made its way across the room…the deconstructed osso buco for two. It smelled great and looked like a lot of meat for just two people. I really think it could feed four.
I didn’t give Babbo five stars mainly for our lackadaisical service. There were times where we were just sitting there (waiting to order, waiting for our plates to be cleared, etc.) and I thought our server could have been more on the ball. Maybe he was gawking a bit because Luke Wilson was dining with a lady friend on the other side of the room, but that’s really no excuse. Otherwise, we had an amazing meal, and I would defintely go back to Babbo if I had another opportunity.
Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca
110 Waverly Pl,
New York, NY 10011+9109
212.777.0303 Web site