Babbo Virgin Report
Like many on this board, eating at Babbo has been high on my list for a long time. Recently the opportunity arose, and so I thought I'd add another anecdotal experience to the existing mountain of reviews.
Reservations were made 30 days in advance for an early seating (5:30), which was not a problem. I was under the impression that 5:30 was the first seating (and that the bar opened at 5), although I have to say that when we showed up at 5:17 a number of tables were already occupied. I am assuming these people are special and possess extra chromosomes that mortals lack.
I'd read on this board and elsewhere that Babbo was more "casual" than people expect it to be, in terms of dress and decor and music. Although these are all very subjective, I actually found the space more "fine dining" than I'd expected. The decor, which seems a little stiff and generic, doesn't really match the supposed playfulness of the menu, but this is also an issue that isn't that important to me. I've read some diners put off by Babbo's selection of contemporary music. Our meal was accompanied by the entirety of Coldplay's "Parachutes" followed by a David Bowie album. This was fine with me, actually, and did do for the menu what the decor does not. Diners' dress varied quite a bit, from business suits to tourists in t-shirts. We dressed casual but respectfully enough to say that we cared at least a little bit.
Both our server and the sommelier were friendly and helpful. Neither seemed snobbish, nor were they unctuously fake.
We began with an order of the 2-minute calamari shared among 3 as an appetizer. This item is listed in the secondi portion of the menu, but our server said we could order it as a shared course. The calamari comes in a tomato broth which has a nice heat that builds and a sweetness that keeps you coming back. The squid itself is very tender. That said, was this my favorite calamari preparation? Not really. More on that later. We also began with a serving of salumi, which I believe was a soprasetta and a lamb prosciutto. Obviously these are high quality cured meats—no complaints here. Sweet, tender, and salty.
The server did explain that pasta courses could be ordered for sharing by the table (of 3), and we ordered three pastas to share. I'm not really sure what "sharing" meant, though, since the pasta courses did not arrive pre-divided. We're not very fussy, though, so we just divided the plates ourselves.
Our three pastas: beef cheeks, mint love letters, and pappardelle with wild boar ragu. All excellent, although our three diners split on their top picks. The pappardelle was my favorite, though it was certainly the heaviest dish. Beef cheeks a close second—interesting and compelling texture. The mint love letters are definitely minty—a little strong for me, but others really liked that fresh green blast.
We selected two secondi for three people, anticipating full bellies near this point. One was the duck. It was shared by the other two diners who pronounced it rich and delicious. I had ordered the pork chop. Admittedly, a potentially "safe" choice, but in fact I was well-rewarded—easily the best pork chop I've ever had. Incredibly flavorful, not just through the crust, but all the way through the thick center. An absolutely divine pork chop.
For dessert I chose a chocolate hazelnut cake. It was good, but is not necessarily going to stand out in my "desserts of all time" hall of fame. We also shared some scoops of the much-discussed olive oil gelato ordered for the table. Unanimous verdict: eh. Companion diners much preferred the gelatos that accompanied their desserts, a strawberry and a hazelnut. Not sure what the big deal is about the olive oil.
I am not a drinker, but companions enjoyed two quartinos recommended by the sommelier. To his credit he was entirely helpful despite us choosing from the less costly end of the wine list, and his picks were very much enjoyed by the drinkers. (I drank iced tea, which received prompt and courteous refills.)
Unlike some, I would not say that Babbo was the most amazing meal of our lives. And if it matters to you, it is obviously not cheap—with tax and tip the bill for three totaled about $350. Of course, we knew this going in and came prepared, so I am not complaining.
However, in the real world price does matter. While we ate at Babbo with our out-of-town visitor, we repeatedly found ourselves telling her about the dishes we order at a small neighborhood Italian joint in Carroll Gardens called Fragole. The grilled calamari at Fragole, for example, is simply wonderful—charred, smoky, tender—and turns us on in a way that Babbo's just did not. It doesn't hurt that they charge half the price for it compared to Babbo.
Also at Fragole, we simply love their pappardelle with braised short rib ragu. The dish shares related DNA with Babbo's wild boar version, but is in fact more delicate, at least equally flavorful, just as generous, and costs less than half the price. In fact, we took our friend to Fragole the night after Babbo just to compare and contrast.
My point is not to diss Babbo, or promote Fragole (just a satisfied customer), but to say that is more than one way to look at this equation. That said, if I found myself at Babbo again and ordered only the wild boar ragu and the pork chop, I would indeed be a very happy eater.
My feeling on the "casual"-ness of Babbo has to do with its rating and stature versus other restaurants of similar rating and stature. It has 3 stars from the New York Times. It might have garnered a fourth but for the ambiance -- Bruni talks in his review about the cramped quarters, loud music, frentic pace of the waitstaff contributing to the line between a three star restaurant and a four star restaurant. About $110-120pp with tax, tip, and wine is a pretty good deal, IMO, for a critically-acclaimed, three starred restaurant. What it lacks in amenities, it makes up for in gusto. Next time I encourage you to try the grilled octopus, the lamb's tongue vinaigrette, pig's foot, the warm tripe, the goose liver ravioli, or the sweetbreads.
I agree with Catherine about the price....babbo is about the least expensive high end place in town and also with Kathryn that you ordered very safely and didnt really play the Babbo's strengths, their offals, Frankly wild boar ragu is a ubiquitous dish served all over the city and many many places do at least as good a job as Babbo...but not many do goose liver ravs, lambs tounge, pigs foot, and the oh so delectable sweetbreads....try it again...
im with the original poster on this one...i just dont get the appeal of babbo. truth be told, i have a hard time paying up for italian food considering my favorite places with homemade pastas and amazing seafood and meats are a fraction of the price of babbo but i still dont get the love.