A visit to Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s nearly 20-year-old Babbo is not what it used to be, writes Pete Wells in his latest review. Wells notes that while the Greenwich Village restaurant is still one of the most essential in New York, “It isn’t quite the same restaurant.”
Ultimately, Wells finds that Babbo has lost some of the charm that used to make Frank Bruni dance, leaving the former Times critic (and his predecessor Ruth Reichl) to award the restaurant three stars (Reichl in 1999 when Babbo opened). In his 2004 review, Bruni wrote: “Among the restaurants that make my stomach do a special jig, Babbo ranks near the top.”
Here are a few reasons Wells didn’t uphold the three-star rating:
A salad of lamb’s tongue and browned beech mushrooms topped with a soft-cooked egg was nice. But the salad was warm and the egg was cold, so it was not as nice as it could have been. I felt the same way about a grilled guinea hen leg; it would have been easier to love if the skin hadn’t been rubbery and damp.
These glitches were far from catastrophic, but they were frustrating because I could usually imagine, or remember, just how good the dish was supposed to be.
Another change Wells notices: Babbo’s style of service, which “can go in and out of focus more than it used to.” He writes:
At the table, the style of service I got seemed to depend on whether I was there for the first or second seating. An early-evening dinner rolled along like a skateboard on new concrete, and the check came with the coffee. A meal that began after 8 p.m. was slow, even draggy, and at times it seemed we had dropped out of sight. Our sommelier was smart and engaging as he talked about a Sardinian red we were curious about (as ever, the all-Italian wine list is a mix of blue chips and underrated discoveries), but after decanting it, he was nowhere to be seen and our glasses stood empty.
Still, a lot of the classic dishes like mint love letters, gooseliver ravioli, and beef-cheek ravioli are as good as ever, and many of Rebecca DeAngelis’s desserts are memorable. “And the friends with whom I shared the olive oil cake — a simple drum with a crisp top and a tender middle, splashed with a bright-green squiggle of peppery olive oil — still text me about once a day to ask if I remember how wonderful it was. I do.”