We know him as the Iron Chef with a gut and an instinct for pulling powerful, intense flavors out of surprising ingredients, but we should also think of Mario Batali as a purveyor of contemporary Italian excellence whose care for his flagship restaurant has only refined Babbo over the years.
The beloved experience of a meal at Babbo is the result of food that is extraordinary, and an atmosphere that basks in the act of shying away from restraint and ceremony. This is a balance that is difficult to achieve without feeling contrived and pretentious in its own right, but of course Babbo achieves its accessible doses of classic formality and joyfully sumptuous flavors seamlessly and without any clumsy statements asserting or clarifying its ambitions.
For all of its bountiful, luxurious ingredients that densely populate the vast menu, Babbo is ultimately a highly polished, highly elegant, casual neighborhood Italian restaurant.
There is a lightheartedness in the dining experience, from the 7-course pasta tasting for $85, to the Beef Cheek Ravioli with crushed squab liver and black truffles that impart flavors both satisfyingly hearty and subtly delicate to the perfectly cooked pasta. There are moments of brightness and serendipty when a waiter pairs a cheese to shave over a particular pasta, and there is deep pleasure at the lack of restraint applied to seasoning and plating and portion in every dish. There is elegance in the thin bands of Stinging Nettle Fettuccine, but there is a simple comfort in the ample accents of house-made pancetta and warm, crisp asparagus that swirl around in the dish. There is joy when each bite surprises you with flavor far beyond the appearance of the dish, and there is a soulful wonder at the food that can do this to you.
Many make reservations for Babbo 30 days in advance, but Babbo is also special in that plenty of reservations for dinner tend to open up online in the afternoon hours before as cancellations come in. Trying one's luck at the bar is also often successful, and again therein lies the magic that is dining at Babbo. Absolutely impeccable food - like the most tender Grilled Octopus antipasto with marinated white beans and a spicy limoncello vinaigrette with hints of sweetness - is available on an ordinary evening. The octopus cuts and feels like a piece of perfect swordfish but presents a distinct flavor that is obviously special, and is very likely the best interpretation of the dish the city has ever seen. But there is ease throughout the exemplary meal, even in the all-Italian wine list with many well-priced bottles under $60, and in the addictive chickpeas coated in a rich olive tapenade that begin every dinner.
If it isn't obvious yet, I'll try putting it another way. You could have a wedding at Eleven Madison Park while eating the best meal of your life. But you could also eat the best meal of your life tonight at 8:45, in the ground floor of a cozy Greenwich Village townhouse. That would be Babbo.