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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

(continued from page 1)

The result was Babbo, which Bastianich and Batali opened in 1998. Within six months, getting a table there became one of the tougher tasks in New York City. Babbo was an unlikely champion of the dining world, with a menu featuring items considered offbeat at the time, such as calf's brains, beef cheeks and tripe. The fare served there was about 3,000 miles away from chicken Parmesan.

Babbo was twice awarded three stars by The New York Times (four is the highest rating), first by Ruth Reichl in 1998, which made getting reservations a near impossibility, then by Frank Bruni in 2004. Each heaped praise. Reichl called it a "a breath of fresh air," and spoke lovingly of the calf's brains as "soft clouds wrapped in tender sheets." Bruni said, "Among the restaurants that make my stomach do a special jig, Babbo ranks near the top."

When France's famed Michelin Guide released its first guide to New York, in 2006, Babbo was one of the few Italian restaurants to rate a star, two shy of Michelin's highest award. Manhattan's French-themed restaurants were the ones to claim the full three. (French cuisine cannot be considered a favorite of Bastianich: Bistro du Vent, a French restaurant he and Batali created with Esca's David Pasternack in 2004, is one of the team's rare missteps. It closed last year.)

The elusive stars are what brought Bastianich and Batali to Del Posto, which they opened in late 2005. "We're still working on that," says Bastianich, sitting in the grand dining room of Del Posto. It has a much greater emphasis on white-glove service than the hipper Babbo. Del Posto (literally, "of the place") boasts one of the most opulent dining rooms in Manhattan, a grandiose main space with balconies overlooking the dining floor and a wide staircase in the middle. Marble and black mahogany are virtually everywhere, making one think of the Queen Mary 2.

Bastianich enlisted his mother's help on Del Posto, and she is a partner in the venture (Bastianich's parents are now divorced, and his father is retired.) Waiters and captains in ties bring course after course in a marathon lunch: first a dish of spaghetti done in oil with succulent crab meat, then a beef-stuffed pasta in a creamy sauce, a taste of raw scallops dusted in pepperoncini, lemon and oil, then the main courses. Bastianich has a Delmonico steak, a visitor has a savory soup teeming with squid, mussels and tender bits of other seafood.

Bastianich exhibits his inquisitive nature while finishing the steak. "What is a Delmonico steak?" he quietly asks a waiter, his eyes down on the dish. The waiter, undoubtedly a touch nervous at being put on the spot by the boss, gives a careful description: the cut is the eye of the rib eye; it was named after the restaurant where it became popular.

Such touches as the staff's ability to speak at length about anything on the dish, set Del Posto apart. A visitor who goes to retrieve his cast-off briefcase at meal's end only to find it's been surreptitiously rescued off the floor and propped atop a small stool appreciates the effort. The move had been done so subtly that he had never noticed.

"There's never been a four-star Italian restaurant [in The New York Times]," says Bastianich. "This place is a big bet, to say that Italian food and fine dining can, in its own right, be as fine a dining experience as any other thing. Certainly that's what we're trying to do. We'll see."

Bastianich's curiosity extends to cigar smoking, and he asks insightful, creative questions about the process of making great cigars. How important is the weather to the success of a crop? The water? Can you make a great cigar out of poor tobacco, or a bad cigar from great tobacco?

He clearly enjoys the experience, and he becomes far more at ease away from the restaurant, as he puts fire to the fat foot of a Fuente Fuente OpusX PerfecXion X, one of his favorite brands.

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