Smokin' Joe

Joe Bastianich has built an enviable empire around the art of fine dining
| By David Savona | From David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007
Smokin' Joe

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."

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.

"I like full-bodied cigars, and I like bigger gauge cigars. I like robustos a lot. I like the whole process of the smoke, and the various nuances that a cigar has as it burns down," Bastianich says. He also hates to be caught short: "I'll have six to ten boxes on hand at any time, in various sizes. And I'll reorder every three to four months, depending on what's out there, kind of keep the rotation going. The general rule of thumb for me [when going out] is to bring twice what you're going to need."

For him, smoking is a daily ritual. He often lights up in his car for the 40-minute drive between work and his Connecticut home with its specially outfitted smoking room. A special air system creates negative air pressure to keep smoke from the living quarters of the house. Bastianich's attention to detail accounts for the reduced air flow in the room. "For me, I hate to smoke when there's so much air moving. It's just not as enjoyable. It's windy. I do enough of that in my car." He mentions the importance of savoring the aroma of a good cigar, then laughs. "I have the bad habit of rolling up all the windows in the car when I smoke, which I wouldn't advise."

Bastianich started smoking cigars about a decade ago, when he stopped smoking cigarettes. His favorites include Montecristos, Bolivars, Partagas Lusitanias and Diplomaticos No. 2s. He eschews thin cigars such as panetelas and doesn't bother with petit coronas, preferring sizable smokes. He also prefers to work a bit for his draw rather than to have it be on the looser side, and counts rapper Jay-Z as a cigar-smoking buddy. "I always tell people the perfect smoke is more elusive than wine in some ways," he says. "It's a very elusive thing, that perfect smoking experience."

If restaurants are in Bastianich's blood, and cigars are his passion, wine is his soul. In 1998, he and his mother bought a winery in Friuli-Venezia Guilia in northeastern Italy, not far from Istria, and since 1999 they have used its grapes to make Bastianich brand wines. In 2001, the Bastianichs joined with Batali to create a Tuscan wine label called La Mozza. Bastianich calls it a Super Med. Next up is a joint venture in Argentina to create an old vine Malbec from the Mendoza region, called Tritino. The first vintage is set to debut as this issue goes to press. "One lifetime is not enough to understand wine," says Bastianich. It's "something not so immediate in this world of ultimate immediacy."

It's the perfect antidote to his hectic lifestyle. His phone rings every few minutes and his e-mails seldom stop. He tries to visit each of his 13 restaurants frequently, even on Saturday nights. ("No one expects you to come out," he says.) There's always a new restaurant, such as the two that he and Batali are opening in Las Vegas, in the huge Venetian hotel. When he's not checking on his restaurants or his wineries, he's probably making an appearance on his mother's cooking show as a wine expert. What little free time he has is spent enjoying cigars and opera, sometimes in Del Posto on a Friday night. His long days typically end with him rolling home to Connecticut around midnight, and they start the next day, when his kids wake him up at dawn.

Bastianich also sees wine as his legacy, making him think of his children every time he does a tasting. "You're not the pilot of the ship [with wine]—you're a passenger. I'm humbled by it—I'm in awe of it. I don't know what my life would be without wine."

Despite his nearly unparalleled success in the restaurant business, Bastianich knows that even the greatest restaurant has a limited life span. "These restaurants may or may not be here," he says. He's amazed at the relative longevity of his mother's Felidia, which is still going strong after 26 years, ancient for a Manhattan restaurant, while a winery that old is still a babe.

One of the few times Bastianich doesn't enjoy wine is when he smokes, feeling that wine doesn't pair well with cigars. He prefers aged rums, and Del Posto stocks 50 varieties. He also isn't a fan of cigar dinners, preferring to eat his food and then to smoke, rather than to puff while eating. "It's ultimately wrong," he says with a chuckle. "Not the way it's supposed to be."

Taking a rare moment of total relaxation, puffing a cloud of rich smoke into the air while sipping a sweet rum from the Caribbean, Joe Bastianich seems to have a handle on the way things are supposed to be.