Only a larger-than-life character like American celebrity chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and television host Mario Batali (b. 1960) would aggressively expand his food empire in an attempt to do something nobody thought possible—supersize the artisanal. Across the country and across multiple media platforms, Batali and his famous partners have successfully sold his philosophy, which combines superior Italian quality with conspicuous American excess—while simultaneously paying homespun homage to the Italian grandmother.
Italian food faced an uphill fight the moment it hit Ellis Island. Nicely depicting the lengthy struggle is the film Big Night (1996), in which 1950s restaurateurs Primo and Secondo suffer orders for pasta side dishes to accompany their equally starchy gourmet risotto. Meanwhile, their crass rival packs his place by pushing uncreative spaghetti and meatballs. A new generation—Mario Batali’s—has finally convinced Americans that Italian food as eaten in Italy is way better than Franco-American brand’s mushy noodles and ketchup-like sauce. In doing so, Batali channels Primo and Secondo, saying, “It’s a battle. If no one [asks] for risotto on the side of their spaghetti again, we have won something.”
Batali and business partner Joe Bastianich perfected their strategy at L.A.’s Pizzeria Mozza in 2007, joining star baker Nancy Silverton for a true marriage of cultures. Fresh, healthful California produce combines with old-school Italian techniques to produce a lighter alternative (the squash-blossom pizza is a standout) to the meat-heavy seven-course tasting menus dominating other Batali eateries. But old-world tradition and new-world excess fuse in Batali and company’s Eataly, the high-end NYC food hall–shopping mecca–beer garden where Silverton oversees the bread concession.
A 20-minute stroll down New York City’s Fifth Avenue takes you from Eataly, Mario Batali’s extravagant edibles emporium, to Babbo, the West Village restaurant where Batali started it all in 1998.
Sure, Po (opened in 1993) was Batali’s original place, but Babbo signified his and Joe Bastianich’s first foray into unshackled hedonism. There they won the stomachs and minds of former New York Times restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichl (three stars) and the James Beard Foundation (best new restaurant award) with a daring menu of organ meats and pungent tastes. Babbo translates to “daddy,” as though prophesying the restaurant would become the patriarchal seat of a massive empire that now includes publishing, television, vineyards and cookware, with more restaurants in NYC, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Singapore—plus the crown province of Eataly, the artisanal food complex that defies those who think mass culture and high culture can’t mix, especially when it comes to cuisine.
Although Batali is often spotted (with many other celebrities) at Eataly, it is rumoured that, when in New York, he can be found most frequently at Babbo. This seems appropriate, since there he truly honed his mantra: “Wretched excess is just barely enough.”
Going from Eataly to the Spotted Pig gastropub that Mario Batali also co-owns may make patrons think they’ve fallen into the rabbit hole and consumed the same “Drink me,” “Eat me” potions that transformed Alice down in Wonderland. The cramped, quirky Pig, with eclectic miniature decor and tiny schoolboy stools, makes guests feel oversize; Eataly, at a stunning 50,000 square feet, is surreal in the opposite extreme, reminding patrons that the food universe is way bigger than they are.
Especially Batali’s universe, which now embraces this big contradiction in terms: a Walmart-size complex of artisanal food and drink. Eataly is the offshoot of a modest, highly lauded slow-food educational enterprise in Turin, Italy. New York’s branch requires a map to navigate; purports to reconnect people with ingredients; and is replete with stores hawking foodie books, housewares and groceries, as well as a cooking school, several restaurants and takeout counters, a bar and a giant rooftop beer garden. Eataly’s sheer ambition is impressive, inviting thoughts that Batali may be the Walt Disney of his trade. Unlike Tomorrowland, however, Eataly offers some of the country’s best food—something it shares with its wee cousin, the Spotted Pig. It’s a small world after all.
In 2003 Mario Batali, soon to be an investor in his pal Ken Friedman’s new restaurant, insisted they had to find the proper cook. When they couldn’t lure British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, they followed his recommendation for April Bloomfield, dubbed the Queen of Meat—a working-class, scrappy-sweet native of Birmingham, England. Quicker than you could say crispy pig’s ear, the Spotted Pig, New York’s first gastropub (a tavern serving high-quality food), was a hit. Foodies and celebs alike fetishized Bloomfield’s signature trotters and terrines.
The early tip-off that Batali had made the right choice: Bloomfield’s missing fingernail and forearm burns, which prompted him to conclude, “It means she’ll sacrifice her body.”
Bloomfield arrived via Berkeley, California, where she had soaked up American tastes in Alice Waters’s legendary kitchen at Chez Panisse. If she had been there a decade or so earlier, she would have worked with Nancy Silverton, Panisse’s former sous chef and, since 2007, part owner with Batali and Joe Bastianich of the always-packed Pizzeria Mozza and adjacent Osteria Mozza, in Los Angeles. Silverton’s celebrated Mozza Cookbook shares shelves with Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories.
“Go west, young men,” some modern-day Horace Greeley must have said to Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in 2007, when they began branching out into the gold-rush frontier of California and Nevada. Moving west returned Batali to his roots in Washington, where his grandmother had taught him tricks like how to tenderize octopus by adding wine corks to the cooking pot. Her legacy survived the trek unscathed. Tentacle for tentacle, her grilled octopus with beans and spicy vinaigrette is much the same at Babbo as at B&B in Las Vegas.
Good thing Batali and Bastianich have new frontiers, since challenges are emerging back East. Their company settled out of court ($5.25 million) on a lawsuit alleging tip-skimming practices, prompting Bastianich to vow they would never again open a restaurant in New York. “Money-hungry lawyers, through frivolous lawsuits,” he said, “are shaking down the very foundation of Manhattan’s restaurant industry.” Further adventures in bad PR: During the Occupy Wall Street movement’s early height, Batali likened bankers to Hitler and Stalin, prompting a financial-sector boycott of his restaurants. But everyone who doesn’t resemble a greedy banker or money-hungry lawyer continues to eat at Babbo—it’s still a tough table to get.
“The food at my restaurants,” claims Mario Batali, “is mostly the food of Italy’s grandmothers.” We know a lot about his father’s mother, Leonetta Merlino Batali, born in 1902 in Black Diamond, Washington. She is no less a part of Batali’s brand than his ponytail, orange Crocs and outspoken love of excess. But the food at B&B—his restaurant in the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas, opened in 2007 with über-partner Joe Bastianich—isn’t just Leonetta’s legacy (even though her influence appears in the ravioli); B&B also has Croatian matriarchs in the family tree. Bastianich’s grandmother, Erminia, inspired her foodie family, including Joe’s mother, celebrity chef Lidia. Erminia frequently appears on Lidia’s television shows, sometimes supplying fresh herbs and vegetables from her garden.
This lineage goes back even a generation further. Says Lidia, “Food for me was a connecting link to my grandmother, to my childhood, to my past.” Since they all seem to be keeping it in the family, B&B’s self-description makes perfect sense: The place features a “blend of exquisite Italian food and a casual elegance that captures the soul of an Italian grandmother dancing the tango with pop-rock hipsters.” Well, at least the first part does.
Mario Batali credits his Italian American grandmother as the biggest influence on his career. She stuffed ravioli with calf’s brains, Swiss chard, pork sausage, chicken and Parmesan cheese, covered them in oxtail-tomato sauce and doled out six dumplings each to an army of little Batalis, who always begged for more. To no avail, she tried to teach the importance of multiple small courses: antipasti, primi, secondi and contorni (sides). Batali’s love of excess may stem from this childhood deprivation, as though he’s still looking for one more ravioli—only now it’s stuffed with beef cheek, black truffle and squab liver.
Silver-haired ladies have featured prominently on Batali’s television shows, including Molto Mario and Ciao America. On his newest, The Chew, ABC’s daytime cookery confab, Batali wrangles four chatty TV-personality cohosts and conjures another of his favorite Italian grandmothers, Susan Lucci, who played femme fatale Erica Kane on All My Children for 41 years—until 2011, when the soap was canned and replaced with The Chew. “Dude, they are so mad at me,” said Batali of Lucci’s livid fans. “It’s as if I had chopped off Erica Kane’s head.… It was an ABC-TV decision; I’m just a pawn in the game.”
Lidia Matticchio Bastianich isn’t Mario Batali’s Italian grandmother—Batali is only 13 years her junior, and she’s actually from Croatia—but she does have grandchildren, and her hometown, Pula, is right down the Adriatic coast from Trieste, Italy, where her family lived before immigrating to the United States.
No need to sweat the details; when you come to America, you can remake yourself. And Bastianich certainly did: She evolved from chef to cookbook author to the culinary force behind the critically acclaimed Manhattan restaurant Felidia. Over some 25 years Bastianich parlayed that success into several more eateries and a solid reputation as one of the foremost American authorities on Italian food.
When Eataly, which she co-owns with Batali and her son, Joe, opened in 2010, she was a star attraction, and lines for her autograph snaked out the door. She is more than qualified for her deanship at the Scuola di Eataly, which offers New Yorkers classes on the art of risotto, the lure of the aperitivo (an appetite-spiking premeal liqueur) and, presumably, how to prepare dishes just like your nonna used to make. The Italian grandmother is, after all, Mario Batali’s ultimate muse.