Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca

In 1998, when Babbo opened, I was not yet a foodie. Yes I liked eating, but my college years were spent in school dining centers or slurping down instant ramen in my dorm room. I knew almost nothing about cooking or baking, I hadn't heard of Mario Batali, so of course, Babbo didn't even register on my radar.

By 2000, I was working my first "real job" and my love affair with the culinary arts began. Food Network was a brand new channel to me and I became obsessed with the then new, now classic, show Molto Mario. Mario Batali was whipping up these amazing looking dishes with an ease that completely intimidated me and I was hooked. I found out about Babbo which was taking New York City by storm at the time, and I was dying to go.

I didn't get there until 10 years later. In 2010 I was not yet blogging, but my first meal at Babbo was a transformative food experience. I went with my equally obsessed friend Weldon (yes, I left hubby at home) and we tried dish after dish that blew our minds. Sweetbreads, tripe, pastas, seafood, game, we created our own tasting menu and everything we tried showcased top notch ingredients, flawless technique, and abundance of flavor. I had many firsts that night, including offal and properly made gnocchi, and I was hooked. Of course, service was impeccable and the experience seemed somehow more special because it was so low-key. You are taken care of by the waitstaff at Babbo, but there isn't pomp and circumstance.

It was a more than a year before I returned, this time with husband in tow, excited by the enormous wine list (my first meal at Babbo was wine-free since I was not yet into wine at the time) and to see if the food stood up to my memorable first meal. It not only was as delicious as I remembered, it inspired me to finally attempt these dishes at home. The beef cheek ravioli took me a solid 3 attempts before I came close to what I ate at Babbo, and to this day, the Babbo cookbook holds a plethora of recipes I keep coming back to.

There are so many wonderful restaurants in New York City that I feel guilty returning to a restaurant I've already visited, but Babbo keeps calling me back. My most recent visit was this last December. Babbo has a white truffle tasting menu in the fall/winter that I've been lusting after for a while now, so right after Christmas, I took my mother-in-law to Babbo for a ladies lunch.

First a word on truffles. The "diamonds of the food world," truffles inhabit the realm of luxury alongside other ingredients like foie gras, champagne and caviar. Truffles are like mushrooms, the fruits of fungus. Unlike mushrooms, truffles grow underground, with the prized black and white truffle varieties specific to certain regions (France for black, Italy for white) including trees, soil, and more. Traditionally pigs, but now more commonly dogs, sniff them out so they can be dug up and harvested, yielding astronomical prices in the marketplace. Chefs and epicureans like to debate between the famous black and white varieties, but both command high prices and have very limited seasons to be harvested. I find the flavor and aroma between the two different, with the black more commonly cooked or heated, while the white are usually shaved on top at the very end. White truffles are also not as commonly seen as the black variety (although this year was apparently a bumper crop for white truffles) but the heady aroma from either variety is a treat, and the idea of multiple courses topped with lovely shaved white truffle is not one that I was willing to pass up.

My first decision was whether or not to add the wine pairings. Seeing a Conterno Barolo on the menu made that decision an easy yes. Now it was time to simply sit back and enjoy the meal.

First course, duck egg on toast with guanciale (cured pig jowl, think bacon and you are there) and greens, served with a barely oaked Chardonnay. Right off the bat, they had me. The char and crispy texture of the toasted bread, the bitter greens, the rich and runny duck egg yolk, and the salty pork, all pulled together and put over the top with shaved truffles, this course was easy to love and paired perfectly with the wine.

Speaking of the wine, had I not been told it was from Italy, I would've guessed white Burgundy. Restraint with just a touch of richness and complexity, this is a wine to seek out, especially with the markups surrounding Burgundian whites these days.

I was in heaven and very ready for course number two.

The second course was pasta, delicate agnolotti in a salted buttery sauce. This was a perfectly simple dish to highlight the white truffles. An example of the "less is more" mantra, these delicate little pastas showed just how beautiful a handful of ingredients, treated with care, can become almost magical. Another hit and paired, much to my surprise, with a light and lovely Barbaresco. When people call Barbaresco feminine, this is exactly what they are talking about. Fruit, tannin, acid, all there, but so silky and smooth, so refined, this is Nebbiolo that drinks like Pinot Noir.

The third course was honestly my least favorite of the three. Veal, delicately cooked and rolled. It was  tasty, but after the fabulous first two courses, I was underwhelmed. What made the third course for me was the wine pairing. A 2001 Conterno Barolo, complex, powerful, perfectly integrated. It showed the real beauty of the nebbiolo grape and why people go nuts for Barolo in the first place.

As to the truffles, in all three courses they added their signature aroma, making the courses and the entire meal feel luxurious, but by the third course, I was pretty truffled out. I'll say this for Babbo, they don't skimp on their truffles and when they say truffle tasting, they deliver. The question becomes, how much of a good thing can you have before that good thing seems less special, less impressive? I must admit I was dangerously close to that line and I was very glad I did the white truffle tasting for a 3-course lunch versus a longer dinner.

As to my mother-in-law, it was her first time at Babbo and she was in the mood for pasta, always a good choice. She started with an appetizer (shrimp in crazy water, basically a limoncello and wine sauce) then moved to gnocchi. Tender little dumplings and buffalo mozzarella married perfectly with a classic and clean tomato sauce. There is nothing surprising about the dish, but it can't help but make an impact for its technique and balance. The gnocchi were perfectly tender, the bites of mozzarella creamy and unctuous, and the sauce a revelation, the essence of tomato and basil.

Her last course was one of my favorites, beef cheek ravioli. I was used to the ravioli being served with a heavier sauce enriched with liver, but her ravioli were served with a light butter sauce (the same that was used for my agnolotti) including black truffles. Delicious, and the next time I make the ravioli I might change up the sauce to follow suit.

Being stuffed to the gils (my mother-in-law is not a big eater so I graciously helped her finish her courses) we skipped dessert, although we did enjoy the little sweet treats they brought us at the end of the meal with coffee. It was a gorgeous lunch and even though there are countless other NYC restaurants I want to try, I'm sure I'll be back.

Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca
110 Waverly Place
New York, NY 10011

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