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Wednesday, March 20, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

Celebrity chef of New York and TV has his roots here

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It's a warm March evening and chef Mario Batali is strolling through New York's Greenwich Village where he is both restaurant owner and homeboy. "Yo, Mario!" come shouts from corners and doorways as the robust redhead passes. He smiles, nods and walks on, pointing out the apartment where he lives with his wife and sons, the park where he hangs with the kids on his day off, and the spot where he stood when the planes hit on Sept. 11.

Batali, whose warmth could heat the streets of his adopted village, arrives at his destination, a softly lit brownstone. We're at Babbo, his upscale Italian restaurant where well-heeled patrons dine on pig's foot and lamb's tongue. — and swoon.

He disappears for a moment, returning in a white chef's coat adorned with abalone-shell buttons, his funky cut-off fatigues and faded red hightops making a mad fashion statement as he stands at the end of his bar and surveys the scene.

A woman seated nearby stares, wide-eyed at the sight of the chef. "I've lived in New York City for 18 years," she says, "and you're the first celebrity I've met."

"Beautiful," he replies.

Food fans have come to recognize "Molto Mario's" red ponytail and matching clogs, now appearing on the cover of best-selling cookbooks. Locally, we know him via the Food Network as the host of "Mario Eats Italy," where his goofball antics and Italian-food insights make him the celebrity chef-next-door, the class clown who could teach the teacher a thing or two about pasta and offal.

Celebrity aside, in the world of New York City restaurants, Mario Batali is the name to watch. New York looked on when Batali opened the Italian trattoria Po in 1993 and fought for reservations when his second effort, Babbo, was honored with three stars from The New York Times and a James Beard award as the nation's best new restaurant. The city cheered when he and his business partners opened Lupa and its seafood-centric sibling Esca, and took note when he dipped his hand into the retail trade with the Greenwich Village wine emporium Italian Wine Merchants.

Today he has his eye on even more New York real estate, with plans to open a tapas-style restaurant and pizzeria. And if you know where to look (in the rear of the rustic gallery-like setting at Italian Wine Merchants), you'll find Studio del Gusto, the handsome "learning laboratory" that houses a state-of-the-art kitchen and Batali's private salumeria — two custom-built rooms that he calls "a vegetarian's idea of hell." Here, the butchered remains of massive organically raised pigs are processed with precision, soon to become the cured meats and sausages that add homespun wow to his restaurant's menus.

What you may not know is that Mario Batali — chef and restaurateur, cookbook author, television star and culinary entrepreneur — grew up in Federal Way. He's the son of a quality-assurance specialist from Boeing and the great-grandson of Angelo Merlino, the Italian immigrant who opened Seattle's first Italian food-import store 100 years ago. What you should know is that the cured meats hanging in Batali's New York salumeria are there thanks to another local guy: Armandino Batali — retired Boeing employee, owner of Pioneer Square's happy hole-in-the-wall Salumi, and proud papa of You Know Who.

Last week, after sampling Batali Junior's crisp pig's foot (henceforth known as "the Scrapple of the Gods"), I set out to pay a visit to Batali Senior. I found him sprinkling fresh sage on a bowlful of gnocchi in the closet-sized kitchen adjacent to his own salumeria. Barely big enough to fit two over-nourished bodies, Armandino's kitchen and miniature cured-meat factory is a far cry from the fancy-pants facility young funky-pants maintains on the Other Coast.

Dressed in a ball cap and smudged apron, Mario's dad is living his retirement dream after 31 years with Boeing (18 spent with his wife and kids in Europe). Here in Seattle, he's attempting to preserve the Mediterranean flavors and food traditions of the past: a passion he's clearly passed on to his famous son. To that end he's spent the past three years offering house-cured meats and a short roster of daily specials to an adoring crowd of Italian food aficionados who come to hang out and eat, sharing the communal table and Armandino's good vibe.

Patrons enter at the sign of the pig (309 Third Ave. S., Seattle; 206-621-8772), a block from the site where Merlino introduced Seattle to the joys of imported foodstuffs. They order at the counter, intent on feasting on fat sandwiches stuffed with peppery finocchiona (fennel-stoked salami), aromatic culatello (pork rump), or spice-rubbed beef tongue. They fill up on braised pork cheeks, porchetta and grilled herb-kissed lamb. "Tastes" are graciously offered as they wait for lunch, allowing time to decide what to take home for later.

Armandino Batali isn't looking for business. He's got more than he can handle during the brief hours he keeps; Salumi is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and for special dinners served by reservation only.

Weekends are spent in the back of this skinny space preparing for the coming week. That's when he uses skills honed during a lifetime of home cooking and after a hands-on lesson in butchering and meat processing in the Tuscan countryside. Married 43 years to a woman who wishes he'd enjoy retirement by being a little more retiring, Armandino is living his idea of la dolce vida. He's curing meat, pouring wine, offering friends and fans a taste of this and that and showing Seattle how eating great food and taking the time to enjoy it makes this life worth living.

This summer he'll gather his large extended family — including the New York contingent — and head to the Oregon coast for a respite from work and celebrity and a chance to raise a glass or two to their continued success.

Beautiful.

As announced late last week, Mario Batali is among five New York chefs nominated for the 2002 James Beard Award for "Best Chef: New York." Seattle's Tim Kelley, who leaves his post at The Painted Table next month to take on the position as chef-exec at Zoe in New York City, was nominated for "Best Chef: Northwest/Hawaii," as were Portland chefs Claire Archibald and Greg Higgins, and Hawaii chefs Edwin Goto and George Mavrothalassitis. Award winners will be announced May 6.

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