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Where has the love gone?

Times Staff Writer

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 with Nancy Silverton at Highland and Melrose avenues -- 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 has offended the sensibilities of New Yorkers with a sign out front: 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)? OK, so at Babbo, more people probably ordered the spicy lamb sausage-filled pasta packages called “mint love letters” or the beef-cheek ravioli. But 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.

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Restaurant after restaurant followed, always generating critical acclaim and popular zeal. Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich opened Lupa, the casual downtown trattoria, in 1999. Esca, the theater district seafood spot that introduced Americans to crudos, Italian raw fish appetizers, followed in 2000. Three years later, Otto, the inexpensive Greenwich Village pizzeria with a list of 600 wines, was an instant hit. They opened Casa Mono, the Spanish taverna on Irving Place later that year, along with Bar Jamon for tapas right around the corner. And in January 2005 came Bistro du Vent, the theater district French place where chef Laurent Gras (last seen cooking at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco) is cooking under the radar.

Wine has always been an important part of the equation: The restaurants have terrific lists that feature unusual Italian bottles at reasonable prices. Instead of wines by the glass, they offer the cuarto: a 250-milliliter pour that comes in a little pitcher -- about a glass and a half. When Batali and Bastianich, who together own a vineyard in Tuscany, introduced the cuarto in 2000 at Esca, it felt, to wine-loving New Yorkers, eminently generous of spirit. If that’s not love, what is?

By the end of last year, as Batali and Bastianich were preparing to open what would be Batali’s seventh restaurant (with a new partner, Bastianich’s mother Lidia Bastianich), a hugely ambitious $12-million dining palace in the meatpacking district called Del Posto, it seemed as though the chef had taken over Manhattan. (Though Batali and Bastianich are partners in all the restaurants, they often have other partners directly involved in each. Beside Lidia Bastianich, Del Posto’s executive chef Mark Ladner is also a partner.)

But Del Posto seems to be somehow cursed. It’s not just that the luxurious 24,000 square-foot, multilevel, 145-seat dining room didn’t get the four stars from the New York Times that Batali very publicly proclaimed he was aiming for (in a documentary on Food Network). 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.

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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.

And the look of the room. “New York’s design-mad restaurant scene has finally lost its marbles,” wrote Steve Cuozzo in the New York Post, in a February story with the headline “Bum and Bummer.” He decried the “rug-joint setting like a 1940s Jersey ballroom.”

In New York magazine, restaurant critic Adam Platt called Del Posto “Batali’s conspicuous, somewhat strained attempt to put Italian cooking on the same high level as French cuisine.”

In its March 27 issue, the New Yorker called the place “preposterous,” deploring its “extreme pomp,” which critic Nick Paumgarten wrote “can feel like a put-on, as though this were the setting for a reality show in which celebrity chefs compete to see who can charge out-of-towners the most for offal.”

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Then there are the problems with the lease. Batali’s landlord at Del Posto has initiated eviction proceedings that have landed the parties involved in court. Apparently the 11-story building, on which Batali and his partners have a 25-year, $14,000 per month lease, was sold during the restaurant’s construction. The building’s new owners, Somerset Partners, reportedly filed court papers on Feb. 9 that refer to Batali as a “buccaneering,” “swashbuckling” “celebrity chef gone wild.” The official issues involve allegations of illegal duct work and storage and the placement of exterior light fixtures that obstruct security cameras. Oh, and handing out fliers on the sidewalk for the valet parking.

Why was that so galling? Perhaps the whole thing seemed a bit Soprano-esque for Manhattanites. Why would a restaurant need valet parking if it weren’t for people coming from New Jersey?

The sign -- and the valet parking itself -- is gone now, a concession to the landlord, Batali says.

Yet even without it, 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.

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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?).

The place is filled night after night; if you want a midweek reservation, you’ll probably have to settle for 5:30 or 9:30 p.m., at least for now.

The handsome bar along the left side of the restaurant was packed on a recent Thursday night and fairly chaotic. A sole cocktail waiter struggled to deliver drinks to would-be diners waiting for tables. One gentleman in a party of four made a scene as he returned from checking with the maitre d’ on the progress of his table. “Lame excuse number seven,” he shouted. “They’re still clearing the table!”

In fact, much of the grousing in the foodie community has been about the long waits. “We had to wait close to 45 minutes after our reservation time to be seated,” complained Laren Spirer on the blog Gothamist on March 20. “At those prices, one shouldn’t be kept waiting at the bar that long without a round of drinks or a nibble.”

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In the main dining room, the tables are spaced far apart -- a true luxury in New York City. And it’s necessary to accommodate all of the comings and goings of carts: bollito misto carts, risotto service carts, cookie carts, cheese carts. The feeling is a bit circus-like, with the rococo piano and clattering tableside service and legions of servers.

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.

There’s been lots of complaining too, about the steep prices and the number of dishes that are only served for two or more diners. “Like the guinea hen, the veal shank and four risotto dishes, the turbot comes in a serving for two,” wrote Frank Bruni in his mostly glowing three-star review of Del Posto in the March 1 New York Times. “Like the char, the veal rack and the leg of lamb, the mixed grill is for four. In a disconcerting and sometimes disappointing fashion, dining at Del Posto can demand more than a generous budget and several hours. It can require a quorum.”

How has Batali been handling all the animosity? He seems to be taking it all very much in stride.

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When we sat down for an interview on a recent Friday morning at the bar at Otto, on Fifth Avenue and 8th Street, just across from Batali’s apartment, the conflict with his Del Posto landlord was certainly on his mind: He had spent the previous day in court.

And how does he feel about the way things are going at the restaurant itself?

“I feel great about it,” says Batali. “I always kind of zapped the naysayers. ‘This is not a Mario Batali restaurant,’ they said. They didn’t understand that we evolve.” Such comments seem to amuse him to no end. How could it not be a Mario Batali restaurant if he’s Mario Batali?

“The people that said bad things aren’t that informed about the restaurant business,” he continues. “The thing is, Frank Bruni possesses a larger vision of it because he lived there [in Italy].

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“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. “I’d rather have a restaurant with attitude than just say ‘let’s make people happy,’ ” Batali says. He defends the policy that forbids diners from ordering salumi or other antipasti as they peruse the menu. “We want to make sure your order is perfectly timed,” he says. " If there’s ever a ‘no’ at Del Posto, it has to be followed by two optional ‘yesses.’ And that’s just me growing up, hard as it is to admit.”

Still, Batali has had to make accommodations. He got rid of the valet parking sign and with it the valet parking. He took the dishes off the menu that were meant to serve four people. “No one wanted it,” he explains. “They order appetizers for six people. To get one table to agree on the mixed grill -- it was just too hard to get anyone to agree to do it.”

Now you only have to be a twosome to order the mixed grill of pork loin, lamb chop, quail and goose sausage for $80. The $95 veal rack is no longer on the menu, but you can get stinco di vitello, roasted veal shank, for $70 for two.

“You don’t have to be a whore,” he continues, “but you need to live in the world of commerce.”

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Over the years, Batali has made that clear. He’s been quoted many times explaining one of the main principles of his business: “To buy food, fix it up, and sell it at a profit -- that’s what we do.”

And at $50 a pop for an order of risotto with Barolo, Castelmagno cheese and a little carrot puree, that principle seems to be very much in effect at Del Posto.

Batali says he’s not bothered by the New York Times’ three-star review -- he still considers Del Posto a four-star restaurant. “Four star doesn’t necessarily mean New York Times,” he says. “It just means the room’s captivating. I’m confident, although it’s not that important, that by Frank Bruni’s next visit, we’ll have four stars.”

And in the meantime, he has his sight set firmly on Los Angeles. He says he aims for the restaurant to open the second week of June, now that construction is underway.

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The name is changed -- what was initially going to be called Latte -- Trattoria del’Latte and Pizzeria del’Latte -- is now to be called Mozza (as in mozzarella) -- Trattoria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza. And though Batali and Bastianich are partners, he says it’ll really be Silverton’s place.

Still, it’ll be fascinating to see whether L.A. falls in love with the chef in shorts and orange clogs.


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