When my sister told me she’d be coming to visit for her 23rd birthday and wanted to go somewhere nice for dinner, I consulted my restaurant to-do list, read reviews, asked friends, compared menus and instead of picking one, I sent her a list of five places to choose from.
She was picky as a child and still not a very adventurous eater today, so I wasn’t surprised when she passed on my exotic options like Malaysian, Korean and Lebanese and instead went for the one Italian restaurant on the list.
Italian food is safe, I’m sure she assumed. Nothing weird about a bowl of pasta, right?
But where we went was anything but your usual Italian restaurant. Babbo, Mario Batali’s Greenwich Village take on Italian food, was creative, inventive and bold in flavor and personality— not the place to go to for a safe plate of spaghetti and meatballs. And while the ingredients were Italian, you won’t find the dishes you fell in love with on that last trip across the pond. Everything at Babbo (Tuscan slang for daddy) was unlike anything else anywhere else.
My sister was a little hesitant and her boyfriend, who I found out just that night is a seriously picky eater, looked on the verge of breaking out into a nervous sweat. Meanwhile me and my boyfriend debated back and forth on what to get, excitedly pointing out different menu items and listening with rapt attention as the waiter described the specials for the night.
To my sister and her boyfriend’s horror, Flaneur started things off with a lamb’s tongue antipasto. Soft, diced tongue was mixed around in a heap of Chanterelle mushrooms, all of it cooked to an earthy brown color and a smooth consistency. Resting on top was a “3-minute” egg (i.e. a poached egg that’s boiled for no more than three minutes) which when poked with a fork, oozed with runny, orange yolk. It had a pungent, almost sour taste which I thought was delicious for a couple of forkfuls but then became almost overwhelming. My sister and her boyfriend watched in disgust as we cleaned the plate.
The rest of us skipped appetizers and went straight to the main course. The birthday girl went with the goat cheese tortelloni, which I told her had been recommended in one of the reviews I read. The floppy pieces of pasta were filled with warm, creamy, slightly tangy goat cheese, all in a light buttery sauce, sprinkled with dried orange and wild fennel pollen.
Her super picky eater beau went with the safest item he could trust, but a great one just the same, the grilled pork chop. The thick hunk of meat was juicy and pink inside and topped in chunky bits of cherry peppers and onions and the subtly sweet taste of balsamic vinegar, the thick, syrupy kind from Modena.
Flaneur toned it down from his appetizer and went with something from the specials menu, asparagus fettucini with home made pancetta. The creamy green color of the pasta was still a little off-putting for my sister’s boyfriend, but we De Angelis’s both tried it and agreed it was delicious. I especially liked the contrast between the saltiness of the thick, crunchy pancetta and the more subtle creaminess of the pasta and the tender asparagus stalks.
My dish, however, garnered more looks of disgust from the out-of-town half of the table, and only Flaneur was willing to try it. Liver was one of the few things I didn’t genuinely enjoy as a kid, but after living in Florence and discovering chicken liver crostini, I’ve become a fan. The ravioli I ordered, big and floppy like the goat cheese tortelloni, were stuffed with soft, hearty beef cheek, and topped with a rich sauce of shaved black truffles and squab (unfledged pigeon) liver. Truffles and liver both have very strong, unique flavors but they worked perfectly here and added to the beef cheek and the smooth pasta, made for a really great, belly warming dish I was glad to have less people to share with.
And because no birthday dinner is complete without dessert, we all saved room for something sweet. My sister and her boyfriend went with the classic chocolate cake, paired with a scoop of hazelnut gelato and drizzled with orange and chocolate sauce. The rich, soft cake would have been amazing just by itself but the cold creamy hazelnut gelato added contrasting texture, temperature and consistency for a dessert that was as close to perfect as a dessert can be.
Flaneur and I were torn between two choices but when our waiter ranted and raved about his favorite on the menu, the blueberry almond upside down (sottosopra) cake with almond gelato, we were sold. The look in that guy’s eyes was genuine. As a serious sweets lover, I could tell. And he was right. The crumbly almond cake bottom was sweet and nutty almost, a taste that only complimented the tart, tangy sweetness of the blueberries. A creamy dollop of almond gelato brought everything full circle.
Dinners like this make me want to send a thank you note to my parents. “Thanks for only allowing one picky eater in our family, and not letting that finicky child be me.”