Saturday, October 4, 2008

Italian with a Rock 'n' Roll Soundtrack

Our NYC trip was timed with our fourth wedding anniversary. Gavin and I decided when got married to never give anniversary gifts, but rather to have a trip be our gift to each other every year. We promised to always spend our anniversary away from home. We don't always go far even though our first anniversary was spent in Norway. Our second was on Orcas Island and the third was at Cave B Winery.

In planning our NYC trip, we wanted to go someplace special for dinner on the night of our anniversary. Some advance planning was necessary, because most restaurants begin taking reservations a month in advance and popular places are booked pretty quickly. We decided on Italian food - because Italian in Seattle is good, but the reputation of Italian in NYC is much better. We decided on Babbo.

Gavin is a big fan of Mario Batali's show and we are both fans of Batali's dad's Salumi. We'd heard mixed reports of Babbo recently, but we had to try it for ourselves. It was definitely something we couldn't experience in Seattle.

The front of the restaurant houses the bar and the maître d' station. It was crowded and kind of loud, but a hostess spotted us and greeted us right away. As she walked us past the throngs and the maître d' (a bespectacled older Italian man), he turned our way and said, "Welcome to Babbo - enjoy your evening." It wasn't much, but I have to say that I found it really charming. It definitely set the tone for our evening.

The dining room is on two levels in an old 5-five story building. We were seated upstairs, which provided more intimacy than the bustling downstairs scene. The 'captain' greeted us immediately and offered us cocktails.

OK - can I just say that I love a restaurant with a 'captain.' As far as I understand restaurant service - the captain isn't a waiter, but more of a manager that makes sure everything is running smoothly and that nothing falls through the cracks. A captain may bus dishes, refill wine, suggest menu items, etc. I am a sucker for good service and a restaurant that has a captain takes service seriously.

More about service in a moment - let me tell you about the food. I'm sorry there are no pictures, but some places just aren't appropriate for whipping out your camera and that is the case for most restaurants.

They had house-cured Culatello on the menu that night, which was highly recommended. It was served thinly sliced with some melon. We had to try that along with a Caprese salad (it being tomato season and all). Both were great. Culatello is similar to prociutto, but I think the cut is a little different. It was more pink and had a little more spice and wine flavor.

The server was great at recommending the number of courses to get. The pastas he said, were large. Some people share a pasta and then each get a second course. We weren't wild about any of the second courses but each found a pasta we had to have. Gavin had chianti-stained pappardelle with wild boar ragù and I had gnocchi with braised oxtail. When the pastas were served, they came by with hunks of cheese and a grater. They said, "the chef recommends pecorino romano for yours ma'am," and proceded to grate a pile of cheese over the top of my dish. They repeated the process for Gavin but with a different cheese.

The pastas were great. Gavin's was perfect. The wild boar ragù was perfectly seasoned. I will admit that I've had better braised oxtail (the version at Quinn's haunts my dreams). What really made this meal special - and memorable - was the entire experience: the food, the service, the atmosphere, etc.

The decor was charming, but what we noticed from the beginning was the music. I think it was the Talking Heads that caught our attention, but we kept noticing throughout the evening that the music was like nothing else we'd heard in a fine-dining establishment - the Pixies, Green Day, Led Zepellin, some Rolling Stones. We loved it! My aunt reminded me the next day that a New York Times review a few years back commented - negatively - on the soundtrack:
Bucatini with the Black Crowes? ("Their second album!" a waiter proudly informed us.) Linguine with Led Zeppelin?

"That soundtrack, the strangely deliberate fruit of Mr. Batali's own iPod, was jarring, as were a few other aspects of the ambience."
We counted at least eight staff members tending our table through the evening: the captain, our server and the sommelier. Two people that brought out our dishes. The guy grating the cheese (is that a formaggier?) and two - or maybe three - bussers.

Can I just tell you what a turn-on that kind of service is!? I always say that I go out to eat for the service and the experience. I can cook and feed myself just fine. Bad service irks me to no end, but good service makes me swoon. I reward good service with a great tip, or as my friend Jen would say, "tipping like a Sultan on vacation." Babbo made us feel like just that - Sultans on vacation.

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