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Take a chance on Babbo?

My wife and I came to NYC last year and we ate at Babbo. We were underwhelmed and prefer not to go back, however, looking at Italian options all over NYC and matching them with our tastes, Babbo is STILL the best fit on "paper". My wife strongly prefers not to go back, but I want to keep my options open for now.

Babbo is hard to make reservations for, so that is a hassle I don't want to deal with again. Plus $150 for a good but not great meal would be quite annoying, especially a second time around, and especially considering that we love Mozza in LA and can eat there anytime we want.

That being said, the menu speaks for itself and maybe we just ordered the wrong things the first time. Almost everyone says Babbo is much better that mozza, and I am sure it is, but that was not our experience, and I am wary of trying it again.

We ordered three things at Babbo and all three things fell flat.

We ordered the lamb tongue dish. It was a much larger app than I expected and it was plated in a way that I would expect at a much less expensive osteria in LA vs the premier ristorante in NYC. the lamb and the veggies were all tossed around together and braised to death. I expected the veggies to be put on top after the meat was braised to add a little texture contrast. The dish also had a heavy hand of vinagear. After the fifth bite I was a bit tired of the vinegar mush. I know the lamb tongue is supposed to be ultra tender, but the mush veggies, the vinegar, the plating, and the portion size made it so I couldn't wait to just get it over with.

We also had two pastas. A gargenelli and the duck liver ravioli. For the gargenelli we expected wonderful, flavorful, earthy, powerful mushrooms. Instead we got a mushroom essence, a very very light pasta sauce essence, and then the pasta. Gargenelli is hard to cook well as its non-uniform shape make some parts too soft while other parts are too firm. Ever since we got that pasta, we never ordered gargenelli again. It wasn't bad, we just prefer other pastas.

The duck liver ravioli was good for about one bite. The raviolis were cooked superbly. I really loved the goose liver stuffing inside. The thing I didn't care for was the heavy hand of balsamic. At first, the balsamic made the dish a brilliant masterpiece. After eating one ravioli though I tasted less and less pasta and goose liver and more and more balsamic.

I have eaten at many restaurants that use vinagerettes on savory/rich meat courses. They never seem to bother me because just like olive oil, they are in the background working to enhance the dish. For me, at Babbo, the ravioli and the lamb tongue seemed dominated by those flavors. I get the concept, its just that the vinegar dominated a bit too much for my taste.

Anyhow, looking at babbos menu, many dishes clearly specifcy using a vinegar, balsamic, or vinegarette. Duck with Five Lillies, Babbo Pancetta and Kumquat Vinaigrette sounds brilliant but I also thought that Goose Liver Ravioli with Balsamic Vinegar and Brown Butter sounded great too.

If I avoid pastas I don't like and the vinegars, there are still enough things that seem great to me. So, is Babbo worth the risk? Manhattan's a huge place, there should be other suitable options.

My only Babbo replacements thus far are Convivio and Scarpetta. Both of these places are my favorites so far. Apizz would be great if not for the lack of pasta choices. Esca and Alto are fancy, but I don't like Pre-fixe for Italian, and ordering nothing but Seafood is too limiting. Places like Lartusi, Aroma, and Gradisca seem intriguing but the menus don't speak to me the way Babbo's does.

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  1. Babbo is one of my favorite restaurants. It is in my neighborhood and I've been several times. My favorites are probably the lamb tongue, mint love letters and beef cheek ravioli. I would never have thought of it as a "classic coat restaurant," but maybe that's just the effect of the often blaring rock music. As much as I love Babbo, it sounds like it just isn't your place. Why not try another of the high-end Italians in the area, like Il Mulino?

    3 Replies
    1. re: una mas

      Everyone loves babbo and for good reason. I didn't take pictures of the restaurant, and I did notice the rock music playing, but it still felt like a coat restaurant. Maybe I am imagining it wrong. There were people there in shorts (likely tourists), and it is not nearly as classic as EMP, but that was the lasting impression I had. I am not glued to that label of the restaurant.

      I looked at Il Mulino a while back and it didn't appeal to me. I will look again. I looked at about 20-25 italian menus so I admit that I was very careful when looking.

      1. re: jlrobe

        I love Babbo but had an awesome meal at Convivio. I think Babbo is a bit more casual and fun. Convivio is more refined and sophisticated. The food is top notch at both.

        1. re: jlrobe

          Il Mulino is good. Not really worth the hype to me. The portions are very large and the food is really rich. The prices are too high for the quality. Plus, the place is so small and packed, it can be uncomfortable.
          Lupa might be a good choice for you.

      2. your alternates are a little 'foodie' for my liking if you're looking to do italian. based on your recap it sounds like your dual emphasis is on a) fun ingredients b) execution. sounds like maybe you just didnt jive with your selections at babbo, because for what they are and do, i think its quite good.

        you might consider an alternative route. something not available to you in LA, a place like il giglio which is more classic northern roman fare. their execution is consistently flawless. rich and hearty though, more an autumn/winter than spring/summer place for me. this is simple items, simple hq ingredients, strong execution. dont expect dainty plating though. try the ravioli al giglio- i think its my favorite food dish in the city and their marinated/roasted zucchini antipasto (complementary with a few other things) is one of the best simple flavors ever put together.

        somewhere in the middle, and if thought to be possible- more expensive than babbo is san pietro. midtowner. more power broker spot than foodie restaurant though is how i would describe the pulse of the place. still, they have some of the 'different' that you're looking for on their menu and once again, bring first class execution in prep/plating/quality. a slightly more 'complicated' menu, which it seems is what youre looking for. it is a down payment on a house though to eat there.

        regardless, consider changing it up. convivio and scarpetta will disappoint you if you didnt like babbo.

        14 Replies
        1. re: conordog

          VERY thoughtful response conordog. Thanks.

          I eat at Mozza in LA often, and Mozza-like places in LA so I like the "type" of cooking. I don't really want to write off Babbo (or its counterparts), I am sure its wonderful, I just didn't order well.

          I also agree that I should be looking for something I cant find in LA, but at the same time, I want to make sure I will like it.

          I think scarpetta and convivio are a good start, and esca and alto are intriguiging, and apizz sounds good, but I just want more options along those lines so I can continue to refine my search, or possibly, go back to babbo.

          You are right. I strongly prefer "foodie" restaurants vs "power broker" spots, but if there is great food and great value, I am all for it.

          You are right that I am looking for fun ingredients and solid execution!

          Thanks for the recs.

          1. re: jlrobe

            I would skip Babbo and try Scarpetta or Convivio, which one will depend on which menu appeals to you more.

            1. re: rrems

              rrems

              I have penciled in two italian, so I can do both. I have been scouring every source I can to find good alternative italian places that I would really enjoy. We love italian so we want to make sure we have a good experience in NY. Who knows, over the coming weeks, I might grow more found of my choices of Convivio and Scarpetta and not need to keep searching for another one. We will likely skip babbo, which is so darn good on paper. Ah well. There is always mozza, which for us, is just fine.

              1. re: jlrobe

                if you havent been to il giglio or il mulino- theyre def both worthy of a visit. just expect a different experience than youre looking for. il giglio really is outstanding italian food. this thread has me wanting to get back there. been three years since i ate there. it may sound silly (a place with 'chicken parm' on their menu) but i cant stress enough how good it is. im very into simple things executed well. that is il giglio.

                1. re: conordog

                  I haven't been to Il Giglio, but what's silly about chicken parmigiana?

                  1. re: Pan

                    Pan -- what i said came out wrong. i love a good chicken parm, but in the context of the OPs restaurant choices (babbo/convivio/scarpetta) chicken parm might as well be chinese food for what he is targetting.

                    dont get me wrong though, a well executed chicken parm imo beats anything those places have to offer. i personally think both convivio and scarpetta are higher risk choices, babbo and alto less so.

                    1. re: conordog

                      I get it. Thanks for the explanation. I agree that well-made Parmigiana dishes are wonderful.

                      1. re: conordog

                        I have to say, I am a big fan of the veal parm at il mulino. The former owners of il mulino opened up a restaurant in miami called il gabbiano and though it was not on the menu, they made chicken parm for the kids at the table. It was lights out good and by far the best thing we ate there (and we had some very good dishes there) , so what I am saying is count me in as a believer :).

                  2. re: jlrobe

                    We have not been to Scarpetta, but we ate at L'Impero once when Scott Conant was still in charge of the kitchen. His signature polenta and wild mushrooms was to-die-for, but the pasta we had and the goat (another signature) were just o.k. Still, Scarpetta is on my "go to" list.

                    When Chef Michael White took over at L'Impero, i immediately loved his food. We ate there twice before the changeover to Convivio. We've had dinner at Convivio once, and the 4-course prix-fixe for $59 was a steal for food of such high quality and deliciousness. We've also been to Alto, where we had a superb meal. So, I guess you can say I'm a fan of Michael White's cooking.

                    Here's another Italian you might want to consider, one which travels well under the usual culinary radar. Osteria Gelsi focuses on the cuisine of the Puglia region. We've eaten there once, and I've been itching to get back because the food was so good. You don't often see a timballo on menus. It's a not-to-be-missed dish!

                    http://www.gelsiny.com

                    1. re: RGR

                      Big fan of the polenta at scarpetta, I put it on the stromboli bread, which I think makes it even more delicious.

                    2. re: jlrobe

                      jlrobe-- do alto or covivio over scarpetta. not even a question imo especially if you like your pasta. it doesnt sound like you will (i just think you're targetting a different experience), but if by chance you decide for a curveball and want to get some better than authentic roman fare, check out il giglio- remember the ravilio al giglio if you go...

                      1. re: conordog

                        conordog,

                        I would love to do alto but I don't like pre-fixe for italian. Many times I load up on pastas and apps and skip entrees and dessert.

                        I can respect what you mean regarding the chicken parm. I am sure there are some really world class classic italian places in Manhattan, but that is just not what I am looking for. Modern food can be "risky", which is why I haven't settled just yet on places like Scarpetta, and why I am scouing the boards.

                        I wish my first experience at Babbo wasn't such a dud!

                        1. re: jlrobe

                          jlrobe-- hear what youre saying about the app/pasta over entree at these places. babbo for sure, id have no problems just comprising my full meal of 2-3 of their pastas. i really liked their papardelle bolognese (enough so, that ill finally brave the carbonara at convivio next time im there) -- this falls under my simple execution category though so this one may not fit you. avoid the spaghettini with lobster and the black spaghetti. linguini with clams was just ok by babbo standards also, still good but i was kindof expecting sublime.

                          what im getting from you though, you may actually like convivio better than babbo (and i would even say dont be intimidated by the prix fixe feature at alto, these places are always very flexible if you want to get creative- add a course/sub a course that kindof thing). artsier plating for sure, which i think is part of the appeal for fine dining of course. i assume youve been to gramercy tavern, if you havent, make a trip there in autumn/winter for their tasting menu. others that knock it dont know what theyre talking about. ive been 3 times and only one of those was a miss while the other 2 were outstanding (an this was over a run of 7 years).

                          my guess is you end up at convivio. ive only been once and i thought their pork ragu was good and i think i liked their oyster app (although it was a tad salty iirc). regret not having gotten the yellowtail app and i for sure next time will try their carbonara.

                          in any event. have fun.

                          1. re: conordog

                            conordog

                            I like papardelle bolognese. Its simple yes, but i love bolognese anything (if its done right) and I love papardelle. I have been to gramercy tavern. I love it. We are going back for our anniversary dinner. I will give alto a call and see if I can do 2 pastas and an app vs an app a pasta and an entree, however, 75-90 bucks for 2 pasts and an app is not getting much on the value end. That being said, I really like the menu at alto, so if it is that good, I might brave the pre-fixe.

                            Right now I am leaning on convivio so I will end up there most likely when all is said and done. Hopefully it is a wonderful experience. I can only make it out to NYC once a year so...

              2. I happen to love the pasta at Babbo, but if you didn't like it, then why go back? There are too many choices for Italian in NYC to return to a place you didn't like. Seems like you and your wife are dreading the thought of going back. So don't bother.

                6 Replies
                1. re: Slob

                  I agree with that, especially at their prices, which while considerably less than REALLY expensive places, will put a dent in your wallet.

                  1. re: Slob

                    Slob,

                    I agree, hence this thread. I have spent about a month looking at italian menus over the weekend when i have free time.I swear I have looked at 30 or so. So far on paper, Babbo still sounds like the best and scarpetta (mixed reviews) on convivio (in tudor city) are all I could find that really spoke to me. Also Alto seemed great, but its pre-fixe. I am just keeping my options open and trying to find that Babbo replacement. So far, it still seems that convivio is my best choice. I havent decided on scarpetta yet.

                    1. re: jlrobe

                      I've been to Babbo, Scarpetta and Convivio. And I love them all. You can't go wrong with Convivio or Scarpetta. Cheers and happy eating. We'll be back toward the end of June after our recent May excursion.

                      By the way, I'm a pasta nut too, and Convivio was more than happy to allow us to go all pasta on the prix fixe. I never go with the meat/fish dishes at Italian places. Instead, I'll order a couple pasta dishes.

                      1. re: Slob

                        Slob

                        Great Idea.

                        I looked at Alto again, and it seems that at lunch we can order three pastas for $54. Overpriced probably, not my kind of atmosphere, and full of midtown suits, but ah well, the option is back on the table now.

                        I also re-evaluated Falai and might consider going there if I order very carefully.

                        A few people have seemed to enjoy Scarpetta enough for me to take a chance on it. Everyone has different tastes, especially when it comes to Italian food.

                        So now I have Scarpetta, Convivio, and now possibly Alto and Falai. Between these four options, I think I can get a reasonable Babbo replacement. I think my italian search is over finally! Hopefully we have a good meal!

                        Thanks everyone.

                      2. re: jlrobe

                        my suggestion would be Scarpetta...it's my fav upscale Italian in NYC...while there have been a couple of people here who were underwhelmed, the reviews here have been largely outstanding (so much so that i wouldn't characterize the overall batch as "mixed" -- more like "overwhelmingly positive with an occassional, mild detractor)...

                        re: Il Giglio, i used to love it but i went back 7 or 8 months ago and it was mediocre in every way...so downhill that i'm unlikely to ever return...

                        as i am perhaps the most anti-Batali-restaurant person on this board, i hope you'll stick to your instincts and explore some other places before considering a return trip to Babbo...the Manhattan board frequently gets frantic posts from visitors who seem fixated on only trying Batali places (i.e. "I can't get into Babbo and Lupa is full too, what am i going to do?!?"), and those posts tend to infuriate and depress me...so i was dismayed to read that you were considering a return to Babbo after disliking it on the first try...given that you're visiting and have a limited number Italian dinners per year in NYC, i'd say definitely explore Scarpetta and some of the other suggestions here before hazarding a return...

                        And for future trips when you feel like a more casual dinner, consider Cacio e Vino (Sicilian in the East Village) and Malatesta (great lamb chops, grilled calamari salad, and outdoor seating in the Far West Village)...

                        Please report back and tell us all where you went

                        1. re: Simon

                          simon,

                          thanks for the comment. You are right, I should try something NEW. you make a good argument for taking a chance on Scarpetta. This is NYC after all!! There has to be more alternatives than EMP, Babbo, modern, and the other usual suspects.

                          Thanks.

                    2. Hi jlrobe, since I share both your enthusiasm for pasta, and "ugh on the balsamic reductions" reaction to Babbo, perhaps I can help you better than can people who like the food at Babbo. (This sensible idea will no doubt be greeted with jeers.) Convivio and Scarpetta also do not make the cut for me.

                      Felidia I have always found to make excellent quality pasta, generally better than I make at home and I'm no slouch, and the sauces strike my palate as nice subtle marriages of classic Italian flavors and methods. Picking all the appetizers and primi that strike your fancy and skipping the secondi is a good idea.

                      This is not a risky suggestion, the restaurant has looong been recognized as one of the top restaurants in NYC, and the founder, Lidia Bastianich, is the mother of one of the owners of Babbo. So, it has pedigree, history, acclaim, and most important, the endorsement of the Babbo-doesn't-fool-me community.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: acidity

                        I was just about to suggest Felidia when I finally got to acidity's note. Gracious service, lovely yet casual atmosphere, interesting pastas, not too hip to get the rez time you want. That said, I did truly enjoy Scarpett (at 6 pm in broad daylight, mind you!). Best of luck!

                        1. re: acidity

                          i'm a fan of felidia. the restaurant doesn't get a lot of press on chowhound but it's a worthy destination. it's pricey so don't walk in thinking you'll get a bargain. you will get a good meal, however.