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Smokin' Joe

Joe Bastianich has built an enviable empire around the art of fine dining
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007

It's a crisp autumn Monday night, the night of the week that most New York restaurant owners dread. Many eateries in town are slow, but the Greenwich Village hot spot Babbo is packed. Every table is taken, including one in a quiet corner where Jerry Seinfeld is sitting. Diners at the small bar outnumber drinkers, and the maître d' struggles to appease the waiting crowd hoping for a taste of beef cheek ravioli and, perhaps, a glimpse of star chef Mario Batali, he of the red ponytail and orange clogs. Happy diners smile as a man wielding a mandoline shaves heady piles of white truffle onto steaming plates of pasta, the decadent aroma wafting toward their noses.

In the midst of this controlled frenzy, a thickly built man with a closely cropped dark beard and a nearly shaved head walks in the door. Few of the diners turn their heads, but the newcomer is as much a part of this dining wonder as the star chef. He is Joe Bastianich, who created Babbo along with Batali in 1998.

Bastianich has a golden touch for restaurants, including such acclaimed Manhattan dining spots as Esca, which specializes in Italian-style raw fish, called crudo; Casa Mono, a tiny restaurant serving eclectic Spanish fare; Otto, a gourmet version of a pizzeria; Lupa, which has been described as Babbo light; and the grand Del Posto, his attempt to claim a fourth star from The New York Times. He owns wineries, including one bearing his family name, has a wine shop and has written books on the subject. At the relatively young age of 38, he is at the very top of his game.

Bastianich was born in Queens, New York, in 1968, to parents who emigrated from Istria, a part of northeastern Italy lost to the cartographers who reworked the maps of Europe after the Second World War. Istria became part of Yugoslavia, and many of the region's ethnic Italians found themselves in the strange, unwelcome world of Tito's communist Yugoslavia. Felix Bastianich and Lidia Matticchio fled Istria and met in the United States, where they married and then opened a modest restaurant in Queens called Buonavia, in 1972. Their son, Joe, would grow up surrounded by restaurant culture. "I've worked in restaurants my whole life," he says. "Rather than going home after school, I'd go back to the restaurant and do my homework in the restaurant office, and live the restaurant lifestyle."

In the days before celebrity chefs and Food TV, the restaurant life was far leaner on style than it is today.

"I remember as a kid being embarrassed to say my dad was in the restaurant business," says Bastianich. "I think that I was fortunate that I was brought up in a much different time in the restaurant business. There was no glamour in a restaurant. It was a very blue-collar job. You never ate in the dining room: the restaurant was for the customers. You were very much a servant. And I think that having that perspective was very helpful through the years. I think it was good grounding. My father used to tell me that the restaurant business was a business of pennies and nickels. Adding them up." He holds a linen napkin in his hand: "It costs 29 cents each time to use a napkin." His hand moves to the tablecloth. "Three dollars." When his father owned a restaurant, he had a special napkin only he would use, to save money. "You can only do great things in the restaurant business if you have margin. If you're not making money, it's not going to last too long. Profitability and margin is the most fundamental starting point of any food service operation."

Bastianich worked at his parents' Manhattan restaurant Felidia, which they opened in 1981. (Chef Lidia broadened the tastes of her clientele by slipping in dishes from the old country along with more accepted staples. More than a quarter of a century later, Felidia still has a food rating of 25 from Zagat.) After graduating from Boston College in 1989, Bastianich worked as a bond trader at Merrill Lynch. Then he felt the pull of Italy. He moved there, bought a car and drove around the country for a year and a half, working in wineries and restaurants. In 1991, he came back to New York and decided he wanted to open his own place.

His first eatery, Becco, was a universe away from what was to come with Babbo, but it was built taking his parents' mantra to heart: turn a profit. With $80,000, half of which he borrowed from his mother, Bastianich signed a 30-year lease on a brownstone on West 46th Street, opened a 140-seat restaurant on the main floor and used the upstairs as his apartment. Margins were low, but the restaurant was profitable. "We always made money," he says.

Becco, which is located in the theater district, was a simple Italian restaurant featuring all-you-can-eat pastas served table side, but Bastianich's true breakthrough was his wine list, where, initially, every bottle was priced at $15. His goal was to get people to drink more wine, and the low price was a huge enticement. "It threw the market on its ear a little bit," he says. "It was still a push—they would come in and ask for four glasses of Chardonnay. Well, a glass was $4; you can get a bottle for $15. And instead of Chardonnay, why not try a bottle of Primitivo. And since it's only $15, maybe you have a bottle of white to start, then a bottle of red. Just trying to promote that true restaurant-style consumption." The restaurant, he says, is busier than it's ever been, serving up to 1,200 people on a Saturday. The wines are still reasonably priced, although now they sell for $25 a bottle.

With the commercial success of Becco under his belt, Bastianich and his drinking buddy Mario Batali sought to open an Italian restaurant that would push the boundaries of great Italian fare. "We just wanted to do something really great, uncompromising," says Bastianich, with his deep, methodical voice. "We never said we were going to get rich on it."

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