It was nearly two years ago that Eater NY blew the whistle on Mario Batali’s sexual misconduct, leading to his ostracism in the restaurant industry and the hobbling of the vast empire he and partner Joe Bastianich had built. The morning the article appeared, employees at Lupa were already pulling Batali’s cookbooks from the shelves at the front of the restaurant, but it was only recently that his financial ties with his former restaurants were finally severed.
New York was the cradle of Batali’s international fame, and four restaurants here are still closely associated with him. In chronological order of their founding, these are Babbo (1998), Lupa (1999), Otto (2003), and Del Posto (2005). While he was still profiting from these establishments, many former customers observed an informal boycott, even though a lively discussion ensued as to whether employees of those establishments weren’t also being punished, some of whom could have been alleged Batali victims.
Now, the orange-clogged one is gone with a payout of who-knows-what, and the Bastianichs — who have faced their own criticisms — are attempting to keep the remainder of the empire alive, reportedly with improvements in sexual harassment policies and with many of the old employees still there. Eater NY decided to visit these restaurants to check in on what it’s like to dine at the once-vaunted places.
We found that they range in current quality — Otto’s days as a culinary game-changer have passed, while Lupa’s newer creative appetizers shone — but one thing held true: Batali’s influence, as we felt it when we first visited them, undeniably still exists at some of the restaurants.
The chef’s impact once reverberated throughout the restaurant industry, not just his businesses. His TV show Molto Mario helped prepare Americans for a more nuanced approach to regional Italian cooking, while his relaxed approach to fine dining set the stage for the collective culinary tie-loosening of the aughts. As frontman for Eataly, he launched a whole new era of food marketing.
But when sitting inside restaurants like Babbo, which formed his identity as a chef, it’s hard to not think about all the ways that his power went awry. Below, here’s a look at Robert Sietsema and Ryan Sutton’s meals at the four restaurants.
When the British food critic Richard Vines opined on a Babbo meal in 2008, he found it peculiar that the upscale restaurant was playing “Stan,” Eminem’s somber ballad about toxic fandom, self-harm, and domestic violence. Frank Bruni of the New York Times said the music “thundered” in his own three-star review, with “jarring” tunes from Led Zeppelin and the Black Crowes coming from Mario Batali’s personal iPod. With its cramped environs, inimitable pastas, and a rockin’ atmosphere, Babbo helped set the stage for a deformalizing of ambitious dining throughout the city. Batali himself, a larger-than-life character who was charged with indecent assault and battery in Boston this year (he pled not guilty), was the id and owner. He was Babbo. And Babbo was Batali.
That chef, of course, is gone, but a dinner there recently showed that not much has changed. The Greenwich Village restaurant still functions as a nostalgia rocket for the pre-crash aughts.
Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mos Def cranked through the sound system at such a clear level that it felt as if there was a live performance upstairs. Walking through the bar room to the dining room felt like making one’s way through a club, albeit a fancy one packed with humans drinking Aperol spritzes instead of vodka Red Bulls. The maitre d’, a cranky guy I got in a polite argument with once a decade ago, is still here, and he looks about as happy as anyone might be at the DMV. And the food is still largely what one would have experienced a decade or more ago: powerfully flavored, fatty, high-acid small plates, pastas, and mains.
The amuse is still a plate of chickpeas with balsamic over toast. The lamb’s tongue still comes with a soft, two-minute egg. Chef Robert Zwirz, who’s been cooking at Lupa or Babbo for the past decade, mimics the earthiness of the offal via black trumpets, and then tames it via tart roasted tomatoes and a bright vinaigrette. Black spaghetti with crab is still paired with jalapenos, though the bland noodles taste of garlic and little else. That beef cheek ravioli is still as spectacular as it always was, chock full of red wine oomph and tangy bird liver. And the barbecued squab with beet farrotto, which debuted over 20 years ago, still ranks among the best pigeons of New York, bursting with a clean, gently gamy juiciness.
“Although [Batali] has lustily embraced celebrity chefdom and taken many mistresses (Lupa, Esca, Casa Mono), Babbo is the beloved spouse to which his heart still belongs,” Bruni wrote in his review. His words, however questionable-sounding in a new context, still apply.
None of this is to say red meat can’t pair with Flea jamming on his bass guitar; I’d sound like the anti-dancing city council from that town in Footloose if I suggested otherwise. And one can’t necessarily blame an older restaurant for leaning into its greatest hits, indulging its loyal clientele.
But consider this: Imagine a fellow like Batali wrote, directed, and sung the most beautiful, lyrical, visually stunning opera in the world. Now imagine that guy is swapped out after it’s revealed he’s an alleged predator. Would you still want to hear that same opera, with the same words, and the same design, in the exact same concert hall? While acknowledging the influence of the supporting players, perhaps you’d agree that it’s time to change the music. And everything else.
Twenty years ago, when Lupa debuted in the heart of Greenwich Village, it was born in the shadow of Babbo, the restaurant that helped catapult him to fame. By contrast, Lupa was more forward-looking in its concentration on Roman food, beginning with the pastas and butcher’s meats for which the Eternal City is famous. But it was revolutionary in other ways, too, featuring a plethora of short dishes, many juxtaposing sweet and sour flavors in the agrodolce style, and a vigorous charcuterie selection cut on a red, hand-cranked slicer that became the restaurant’s symbol.
I went many times in the early days when the place caused a sensation, so I was eager to see how the food fared post-Batali. The days when it was jammed with food celebrities were gone, but I found the premises much the same: a big, bright dining room with a bar running along one wall, plus serpentine rooms in the back for more intimate dining.
The place was only two-thirds full on the weekday evening I went with a friend, a far cry from the scrum of supplicants in earlier days. The culinary spirit of Batali has persisted though, with more of the early dishes unreconstructed, but also showing the subsequent hand of Mark Ladner, who was the longtime chef at Lupa before moving on to Del Posto. These days, the kitchen’s under the watch of chef James Kelly, who previously worked at Babbo and Danny Meyer’s Roman restaurant Maialino.
A case in point is Batali’s famous testa ($11), warm head cheese dusted with fennel pollen. Offered in thin, fragrant slices, it was as good as ever. In similar fashion, the Roman pasta we tried was equal in excellence, a bucatini all’Amatriciana ($19) with plenty of chewy guanciale and huge swatches of well-stewed onion. A coda alla vaccinara (butcher’s oxtail stew) was dense and flavorful, though pulling the meat from the outsize tailbone took too much effort. The flavor was slightly tart and pleasantly skewed with yellow raisins (there’s that agrodolce again).
In some ways, the newer creative apps were more interesting than the old standards. These included a trio of squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and fried in a crunchy batter that would have made a good starter by themselves. With anchovies overlaid on each flower, the flavor was launched into space. It was the best thing we had that evening, in a meal that cost more than $100 per person, including two quartinos of wine.
On the subject of wine, the list runs to around 300 bottles, almost all in the over-$50 range, including a slew of wines from the Bastianich family winery in northeast Italy’s Friuli Venezia Giulia region, along with lots of digestifs and other post-prandial alcoholic beverages. All in all, Lupa is a fine place for an expensive and still innovative Italian meal, now that Batali is not profiting from it, but also still shows influences from the disgraced chef’s culinary genius.
When Otto Enoteca Pizzeria opened in 2003 in Greenwich Village, it presaged a new generation of upscale pizzerias that offered new forms of pizza along with sophisticated side dishes, and that paired them with wines that were considerably better than just drinkable. Otto, which once had pizzas named after Batali’s sons, had a gimmick: The pizzas were cooked in stove-top skillets, rather than in an oven. It made them a little flat and dense, at least at first. Some had conventional toppings, while others felt like pure Mario, including one that featured potatoes, anchovies, and ricotta.
But the pizzas were then considered almost a sideline, as diners went crazy for the pickled veggies, marinated seafood, little fried snacks called fritti, and pastas. In fact, William Grimes’s two-star Times review was titled “A Pizzeria Where You Can Skip the Pizza.” The front room — one of four dining spaces total — was where customers came to enjoy Otto’s railroad-station theme, an Italian wine list second to none in the city, and a unique list of charcuterie, some made in-house, some domestic, some sourced from the length of the Italian boot.
I was dying to try a pizza that had been my favorite 15 years ago, in which fragrant strips of cured pork fat called lardo were laid across a pie sprinkled with rosemary. At the time, it was revolutionary in its flavor and simplicity. But in 2019, I found the lardo pie ($15) had been fussed with, and now also contained cheese, sliced pears, and — worst of all — balsamic vinegar, which obliterated the funky flavor and salty-savory balance.
Other favorite dishes were as I remembered them, though where once there were several categories of small plates, the number has been reduced and consolidated into a more conventional apps section. Offered as a side dish, the caponata ($7) was still sweet and chunky, and the bread salad panzanella ($11) even better, though not quite juicy enough. The best thing I tried was a mortadella, made just outside Milan and flecked with truffles. While good, the bucatini all’Amatriciana was not as splendid as I remembered it. Like the lardo pizza, it had now lacked the pungent simplicity of Batali’s best early recipes, with too many under-sauteed onions.
Overall, I’d say Otto remains an agreeable place to hang and meet friends, though as a place to find culinary surprises, its day has passed. Still, the wine list remains superb, and you’ll find worthwhile dishes to go with it.
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Ocean’s 13 to Spiderman 3, Hollywood has a long history of satirizing restaurant hosts, depicting them as imperious, stiff-lipped, pencil-mustachioed autocrats whose sole purpose is to humiliate the guest. The truth, of course, is that even at New York’s fanciest venues, most greeters will find a way to make a newcomer feel excited to be there, even if it means “we only have seats at the bar.” Well, usually.
Del Posto — a palace of a culinary establishment that describes itself as “the richest and most refined creation” of Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich, and executive chef Melissa J. Rodriguez — manages to evoke a cinematic stereotype of a fancy restaurant.
When I walked up to the bar on a recent Friday, I couldn’t seem to get anyone’s attention. “Can I help you?” a host finally asked. I mentioned I’d like to have dinner. She conferred with another host, who then came over and asked if he too, could help me, before explaining multiple times that dining here would not be an option. This was all quite amusing because the reservations site showed ample availability later that evening. After another try, the host finally relented. I was invited to come back to the restaurant in “at least an hour.”
Had I not been a food critic on assignment, I would not have returned, as the intention of the host staff was clear: We don’t want you here, but we’ll let you into our club because you’re persistent.
Candles line every step of a grand marble staircase. A piano player taps out an old James Bond theme, while Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” blasts out from one of the private rooms downstairs. Patrons wore evening gowns, full suits, and T-shirts and jeans.
The dinner menus, at the bar and in the dining room, run $179 for five courses, or $209 for eight, which makes it more expensive by starting price than, say, Le Bernardin, one of the city’s best and most ambitious restaurants. But while Del Posto was once a bastion of whimsically extravagant Italian fare (except when it wasn’t), it now seems to languish in soporific, uniform luxury.
It took the waiter longer to describe my madai sashimi than it did to eat it; the cool fish tasted like any run-of-the-mill raw fish preparation from a hip small plates place. Linguine with geoduck, while impressively al dente, showed no evidence of the sweet, briny, expensive mollusk. The pasta was simply a (delicious) study in salt and smoke. Corn agnolotti in aromatic brodo did its best job to stifle the sweetness of the namesake vegetable, while roast chicken flaunted the type of generically squishy meat and truffle-light flavor one would expect from any upscale hotel restaurant anywhere in the world. Seared tuna was better, showing off its luscious oils and silky texture, though a grating of the fish’s cured roe yielded more color than oceanic flavor.
The single composed dessert, by pastry chef Georgia Wodder, involved a fine juxtaposition of dairy, in the form of clean fior di latte gelato, and acid, via a bracingly tart Sicilian lemon curd. It served to awaken the palate like an amuse — except it signaled the meal was over.
The wait staff is sometimes hilariously formal. I watched a bartender find the requisite piece of silverware right in front of me, walk 10 paces to retrieve a stupid tray, then walk back to present my precious flatware as if it were a Christmas gift. And while the service is genuinely warm — sometimes even tongue in cheek — behind all the gray-toned suits, a genuine hospitality experience requires a welcome greeting. And better food.
42 West 39th Street, New York, NY 10018