NEW YORK - Could it be a culinary case of the seven-year itch?
New York City's love affair with Mario Batali began in 1998 when Batali opened his flagship restaurant off Washington Square, Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca. The bond strengthened and deepened as the chef opened a string of six other Manhattan hotspots and an Italian wine shop. But now this romance has hit a bit of a snag.
Lately, just as Batali has opened an ambitious new restaurant and is poised to open another in Los Angeles - his first outside Manhattan - he finds himself besieged. He's the target of critics' endless wisecracks. He's enmeshed in eviction proceedings at the new restaurant. And more to the point, he offended the sensibilities of New Yorkers with a sign out front, since removed: valet parking $29.
Seven years ago, the city's food-loving cognoscenti quickly fell for the red-headed, shorts-wearing chef, impressed by the risks he took in the name of gastronomy. Who else would have the nerve to offer lamb's tongues and calf's brains and testa (head cheese)?
Foodies were thrilled by the culinary bravado and sense of adventure, the fabulous pastas and white anchovies and octopus. They were so smitten they even tolerated a sound system that blasted Led Zeppelin.
But Del Posto, Batali's seventh restaurant, seems to be somehow cursed. Critics all around town have been lambasting it - from the New Yorker to New York magazine to the Daily News and the New York Post to TimeOutNY.
Their gripes? The fussy, pretentious, often inexpert service. The stools for ladies' purses. Parmesan specialists and chocolate sommeliers roaming the floor. The $60 risotto for two. The $95 rack of veal for two. The $24 cup of "cave-aged" Chinese tea. The pici, the pasta dish with coxcombs, chicken livers, black truffles and duck testicles. Yes, duck testicles.
Walking through Del Posto's revolving door, on a trafficky, sparsely populated stretch of 10th Avenue, feels like entering some five-star hotel from another dimension - or maybe Venice of the imagination, circa 1932.
A grand sweeping staircase in the center of the dining room leads to dining balconies on the mezzanine. The colors are all gold and mahogany with lots of polished wood and marble and gorgeous tile floors. The lighting is warm, the feeling relaxed. The word swank comes to mind. A piano plays overwrought versions of standards (could that be the piano player from Nordstrom?).
Much of the grousing in the foodie community has been about the long waits. Don't try to order some of Batali's famous salumi - Italian cured meats - while you're perusing the menu, though; that's verboten. Everything must be ordered at once: house rules.
How has Batali been handling all the animosity? He seems to be taking it all very much in stride.
"The people that said bad things aren't that informed about the restaurant business," he says. "If you can't stand a little jostling and maybe your table is 10 minutes late or 10 minutes early and your waitress is an artist who has a show this month and isn't going to focus on your food allergies," well, then maybe this isn't the spot for you.
Still, Batali has had to make accommodations. The $95 veal rack, for example, is no longer on the menu.
In the meantime, he has his sight set firmly on Los Angeles. He said he aims for the restaurant to open the second week of June, now that construction is under way. It'll be fascinating to see whether L.A. falls in love with the chef in shorts and orange clogs.
Leslie Brenner writes for the Los Angeles Times.