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Dec 30, 2008 02:04 PM

Great way to start the New Year

I was able to snag last minute reservations to Babbo on the first of the year. Should I go with the tasting menu or a la cart? There is 3 of us so if a la cart is best, any suggestions so we all can try something different? Thanks and Happy New Year.

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  1. A la carte, a la carte, a la carte.

    Preparation for Babbo: if you are interested in great writing about great food, I emphatically endorse picking up a copy of Heat by Bill Buford before you go. Buford is a great writer, Mario Batali is a great character, and you'll be salivating as you read through life in the Babbo kitchen. I tore through it in a matter of days!

    Make double (triple) sure you confirm your reservation the day before via the confirmations-only phone number (not the main reservations number), with your confirmation code.

    Request to sit on the upper level, where it's more spacious and less noisy. I like my rock'n'roll music but hearing the Pixies or MGMT or They Might Be Giants (so weird!) blast at a nice restaurant is odd even after dining there a few times.

    Arrive on time and with your entire party there. Be prepared for some chaos in the bar area (coat check is the worst-designed coat check ever at Babbo). Smile and be nice to the host. I've heard he can be crabby but he's never been anything but nice to me. Just be aware of where you are standing as people are checking their coats, new folks entering, finished folks exiting, waiters clearing tables, patrons getting up from the bar, people trying to sit at the bar, it can be totally shoulder to shouler!

    Don't order the tasting menus, none of the greatest hits are on there. I don't know anyone who has been disappointed by the tasting menus, BUT the most-discussed dishes are not found on there. The one criticism I've seen about the pasting tasting menus is that it's a lot of pasta by the time it's done -- only you can be the judge of whether or not it's a good thing. A friend of mine who is a food critic/writer went to Babbo and had the kitchen send out their best dishes, as a custom tasting menu....and it contained most of the dishes that people rave about (which aren't on the regular tasting menu). That fact, to me, is telling and very counter-intuitive. There will also be a few specials. It's winter truffle season right now which means really expensive daily specials, though.

    Order wine and take advantage of a really interesting wine list and knowledgeable sommeliers.

    Service can be hit or miss, but most of the servers there know the menu like the back of their hand if you're having trouble deciding. The worst service I've had was just a waiter who was a bit absent during our meal. Bartenders are nice but the bar is often packed full of people dining or waiting for a walk-in table.

    Don't eat the bread, it's kind of boring. Save room. Note that they don't offer olive oil or butter with bread service (supposedly the more traditional Italian way to do it). The amuse seems always to be chickpea bruschetta with a nice balsamic. It's fine, nothing super special.

    For two people I've done two antipasti, two primi, and split a secondi between the two of us, sharing plate the whole time (we usually don't get sides). The kitchen can also divide portions onto two plates if you wish. Ordering conservatively on the secondi dishes leaves some room for dessert. The secondi are pretty big by the time you get around to that course. Note that the secondi don't come with any sides, you should order sides separately if you want them. IMO, the antipasti and primi menus are stronger than the secondi menu.

    Assuming you are adventurous/don't mind offal, I'd do for the appetizers: the lamb's tongue vinaigrette with three minute egg, crispy pig's foot (don't worry, it doesn't really look like a foot), grilled octopus, or tripe (comes with bread, very messy). If you are trying to save space, the salumi plates and testa are also very good but a much smaller portion. You can get the salumi they make in-house (prosciutto, lamb's tongue, lardo, spicy salami, and more) or the salumi that Mario Batali's father makes (slightly smaller selection). Although, last time I was there, the house made salumi were unavailable...sniff. The testa we got instead was quite good, though.

    For pastas, they are second to none. Everything is cooked perfectly (al dente). I love the goose liver ravioli the most and so has everyone I've ever taken there. Others like the beef cheek ravioli, chianti stained parpadelle, gnocchi with oxtail, or mint love letters, but I think the goose liver wins over those four, although the lamb's brains are also very good. The pumpkin lune are nice but on the sweet side. (IMO Hearth's gnocchi is better but it's in a butter sauce not a red sauce) Personally, I am not a huge red sauce fan and thought the gnocchi and mint love letters were good but not great. YMMV. Still: goose liver ravioli is #1. It is, however, quite heavy and rich. So be prepared.

    For the main, the fennel-dusted sweetbreads are fantastic. The pork chop and lamb chops are also excellent: perfectly cooked and juicy. Easily split between multiple people, although the pork chop might require some sawing. The rabbit is also good, too. The skirt steak is only OK, stay away from that. I've also heard wonderful things about the duck. There are often very good specials too (had some braised pork cheeks once time). For the big chops, you can spot a big rack of meat coming from across the room! It smells divine. If only I had a second stomach....

    Save room for dessert! If you are very full, you can get the assortment of gelati and sorbetti. A summertime trip yielded: olive oil gelato (perfect as usual), hazelnut gelato, bittersweet chocolate gelato (so intense, and dark, like a punch in the face with chocolate), espresso gelato (so smooth and gone in about two seconds flat), coconut gelato (wonderful even if you don't like coconut), pineapple sorbetto (nice and sweet), green apple sorbetto (sharp and tart but refreshing), rhubarb sorbetto (very tart), mango sorbetto (addictive and reminiscent of Indian mangos), and huckleberry sorbetto (nice and with bits of real huckleberry).

    I also like the seasonal fruit crostata (I think right now it's pinenut). Oh, and the chocolate hazelnut cake is also nice. Other popular desserts are the maple cheesecake or the semifreddo (which is excellent).

    Last time I was there, Concord grapes were still in season and we had the most wonderful dessert. here was this take on traditional Italian harvest bread with grapes "Schiacciata d'Uva." It was amazing. The pastry chef had put concord grapes inside a more brioche like loaf (nontraditional), and a drizzle of honey, and a scoop of melting vanilla gelato. Served warm, with gooey and sweet grapes tucked inside the brioche. Delicious!

    Really, I've never had a bad meal there food-wise and in comparison, the other complaints (space, noise, service, difficulty obtaining a reservation) seem to disappear by the time the petit fours come around. And the check is surprisingly reasonable for a celebrity-chef, three-star restaurant in Manhattan. And wine is served in quartinos, if you just want a little bit to share, which helps with the total expense.

    More on ordering at Babbo:

    Photos of recent meal there:

    Gosh, I love Babbo. (Sorry this was so! long!)

    13 Replies
    1. re: kathryn

      kathryn- thank you so very much. excellent information

      1. re: kathryn

        Is this too much for 3 people:

        Warm Lamb's Tongue Vinaigrette
        Roasted Beet Tartare
        Warm Tripe
        Grilled Octopus with "Borlotti Marinati"

        Goose Liver Ravioli
        Beef Cheek Ravioli
        Gnocchi with Braised Oxtail
        Goose Liver Ravioli

        2 of the three:
        (Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads)
        Grilled Pork Chop

        1. re: misnatalie

          That is definitely on the generous side for three people. I would take off one antipasti and one pasta. Especially since the tripe is pretty heavy and you need lots of bread to eat it, so it ends up being pretty filling. The ravioli are not super-full but the saucing can be rich. Also, the gnocchi is going to be fililng. Don't forget that it comes with a meaty ragu.

          1. re: kathryn

            Agree with kathryn. This is definitely a lot of food and probably can feed four. If I were to be more specific, I will definitely keep the lamb tongue which is something you can't get elsewhere unlike the other ones that you mentioned and choose one or two more apps. To me, the other apps that you have chosen are available in other restaurants in a different style, but these days it isn't too hard to find great octopus or tripes on the menu. Of course it also depends on what ingredients you really like.

            As for pasta, pick one of the raviolis that appeal to you and the gnocchi so you can taste more variety of pasta. As for the pumpkin lune, it isn't my favorite, but if you like pumpkin, that's certainly something you should order.

            The grilled pork chops are GIGANTIC and with one more secondi I am sure you will be stuffed. However, if you cannot finish, you can doggy-bag the leftover pork chops and meat items because they tend to taste fine after re-heating at home. I will suggest not to doggy-bag sweetbreads or fish or poultry (except for duck) because they tend to dry out after reheating. I learnt my lessons after my numerous over-ordering at Babbo over the years ;P

          2. re: misnatalie

            That may be a bit generous, as Kathryn has said. Please don't forget about dessert, as well. Babbo's pastry chef is incredible, and whether you decide upon a simple sampling of gelato, it will be an excellent way to end your meal. In my opinion, concentrate on the pastas. The secondi are delightful (as is pretty much everything on the menu), but I thought the pasta was where Babbo shined brightest - that is, if you don't mind a night of carb loading.

            1. re: pastry634

              There is always room for dessert, and yes I will take away the tongue salad. I probably won't go back for a while that I'd rather be able to taste as much as I can even if I can't finish it so all the pasts will stay. Thanks everyone for your help.

          3. re: kathryn

            Wow. Kathryn. I've saved these extremely helpful post for future reference. Greatly appreciated.

            1. re: kathryn

              Since Babbo is second to none with pastas. Do you think these dishes would be wise choices for two people with big appetites: beef cheek ravioli, chianti stained parpadelle, gnocchi with oxtail, goose liver ravioli and mint love letters. And do the mint love letters taste minty?

              1. re: daffyduck

                Are you getting anything else? I might add a single appetizer or entree to that, I guess? That's a LOT of food but if you order very lightly and have big appetites it sounds OK.

                The mint love letters each have a single mint leaf embedded within the filling, which provides the mint flavor.

                1. re: kathryn

                  Thanks alot. I really want to order well since I don't know when I'll be eating at Babbo again. I'm not a big fan of the flavor of mint and neither is my friend so I think we'll replace that pasta with the black spagetti and rock shrimp. I guess we'll probably add the lamb's tongue appetizer or the grilled octupus.

              2. re: kathryn

                Thanks for your suggestions! You were right, the goose liver ravioli was ridculous! I also really liked the goat cheese tortelloni and the octupus. But my favorite thing was the maple cheesecake! It was earth shattering! holy kadingbat. that was the single greatest thing I have ever eaten.

                  1. re: kathryn

                    Just read your fantastic and very helpful review! Answers most of my questions I posted separately (ugh, sorry, Manhattanites).

                    I agree the paste a la carte sound much more interesting than the ones on the tasting menu! Especially the goose liver and lamb brains were smiling at me!!!

                    And two apps, two primi, a secondo and dessert is generally the way we roll anway. So it's all good.

                    Now I just have to snag a rez :-D