PART ONE: DRESSING, ON THE SIDE
A meal is only as good as your meal companion. Even the best food turns sour in the face of an unhappy cohort.
Which is why I approached my Babbo dinner cautiously. Lisa, my companion, has many virtues. She can be funny, she plays the piano very well and she can finish a Minesweeper game faster than General Colin Powell. What she can't do, apparently, is choose an outfit for a nice restaurant.
"I seriously don't know what to wear," she said, before we left.
"Wear what you would wear if your mother was in town and she was taking you to dinner."
"I wouldn't be able to GO to dinner because I don't have anything to wear."
I was beginning to get worried. This sort of attitude may domino into a disasterous evening of Bad Babbo Karma.
"Here," I said, at last, "wear this."
I yanked a red fuzzy, glittery top from her closet, paired it with a pair of black pants and handed it to her.
"Fine," she said, and went in the other room to put it on.
She came back looking great and I said: "Ok, let's go."
PART TWO: A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES
After walking the 20 blocks south in the light rain, and after making a stop at soap store (to kill time) which left Lisa smelling musky from body oil she accidentally sprayed on, we arrived at Babbo. There it sat, austere looking but mysterious, as the misty drizzle flitted past the lights.
"Ready?" I asked.
"Ok," said Lisa, nervously.
Lisa is scared of fine dining. She is scared of Chowhound. She would be just as happy eating bad pizza, or a microwavable vegetarian hot dog, as she would eating at one of New York's top restaurants. Again, this leaves me very worried.
We follow two flighty possibly already intoxicated women through the door. We stand, stupidly, at what we think is a hostess stand but which is not. We continue, then, past the bar towards the real hostess stand where a hostess awaits us.
She smiles. "Good evening."
"Hi," I say, "we have a reseravation for two. The name is Gurtzletrotter*" (* NOTE: names have been changed to protect the innocent. Except for Lisa's.)
"Gurtzletrotter, ah ok, 10:30. Have a seat at the bar and we'll seat you shortly."
PART THREE: THE BAR
Having carefully examined the Babbo cookbook earlier in the day, like an over-excited child at Disneyland memorizing the ride names from the map, I knew what to ask for.
"Watch this," I said, jutting my face towards the bar like Pierce Brosnon by way of Woody Allen.
"Can I help you sir?" says the bartender, cooly.
"Yes," I say. "Two Blood Orange bellinis. And use the good stuff."
"Sir," he says, "tonight we're serving Wild Strawberry bellinis."
Bar patrons begin to snicker. Someone throws an olive at my head.
"Ok ok," I say, keeping my cool. "Wild Strawberry it is."
He fills two champagne glasses with a pink looking bubbly liquid. Lisa and I toast.
"Here goes nothing!" I say.
"Mmmmm," I say, perhaps trying too hard. "That's delicious."
"Yes," Lisa agrees. "It sort of tastes like a wine cooler."
This, as an Epicurian, I find offensive.
"Well," I say, "Except this is made from the finest ingredients, using a top quality champagne."
"Sure," scoffs Lisa. "If by top quality you mean Bartles and James."
Thunder claps in the distance. A tumbleweed blows through. Harold Hill, from The Music Man, sticks his head in and sings "You've Got Trouble."
The bill comes. I open it, regaining my cocksure. My head rotates 360 degrees on its axis.
"What," worries Lisa. "How much is it?"
"Stay calm," I say. "We can handle this. When I count to three, I want you to fake a seizure."
Before she can, our name rings out.
I quickly pay the $30 for the two drinks (which, on reflection, I suppose isn't the most horrible thing ever) and we follow the hostess to our table.
PART FOUR: THE ONE NEAR THE BATHROOM, PLEASE
We are sat at a table for two at the top of the stairs and close to the bathroom.
This can mean a number of things. Either we are so attractive, they want to parade all the patrons past us to show how lovely their clientele is OR we are so offensive, they are keeping us near the bathroom to say: "Yes, we know they're ugly, and we TRIED to flush them, but this is the best we can do."
Either way, the atmosphere is quite lovely. The walls are white and framed Italian adages (with translations) adorn the walls.
"Something something something," I read off mine, forgetting now what it said.
"When at the dance," Lisa reads, "you have to dance."
"I like that!" I say, feeling a bit buzzed from the $15 drink.
"Yes!" says Lisa, perhaps a bit buzzed too.
"Good evening!" says our waiter. "Can I start you out with something to drink? Something from our wine list?"
"I'll have an iced tea," I say.
"Water's fine with me," says Lisa.
"OK," says the disappointed waiter. "We have a couple of specials tonight. Something something something, something something something."
"Hmmm, those sound good," I say. "But, I'm here with a vegetarian, and I was told--speaking to the hostess--that you can do a vegetarian pasta tasting menu."
"Yes, it's true," he says. "But the WHOLE table has to order it."
All eyes are on me.
"Done AND done," I say, handing back our menus.
PART FIVE: THE FEASTING BEGINS
A bread man comes and puts freshly sliced bread down on our plates.
"I hate when they don't give you a basket," says Lisa. "I like to control how much bread I eat."
As if to spite her, as soon as she finishes the first slice the bread man is back with another.
"Thank you," she says, starting to worry about eating her words.
Our waiter returns with a plate and a card.
"This is a gift from the chef," says the waiter, placing down the plate. These are chickpeas in some kind of sauce on tiny pieces of toast.
"And here," says the waiter, placing down the card, "is a list of the pastas you'll be eating tonight on your vegetarian pasta tasting menu."
He leaves and I eat a chickpea toast. "Mmmmm," I say.
Lisa tries one. "Mmmm, that's good."
Things are looking up.
PART SIX: THE VEGETARIAN PASTA TASTING MENU
Here is what the card says:
PASTA TASTING MENU
Black Tagliatelle with Sweet Peas and Mint
Sweet Potato "Lune" with Sage and Amaretti
Homemade Orecchiette with Garlic and rapini
Asparagus and Ricotta Mezzalune with Sage Butter
Garganelli with Funghi Trifolati
Ricotta Fresca with Red Currants and Toasted Pine Nuts
Saffron Panna Cotta with Peaches, Sweet Basil and Peach Sorbetto
"Wow," says Lisa, "that's a LOT of food."
"We can do it," I say, with a little bit of worry in my eye. I whisper again for emphasis: "We can DO it."
PART SEVEN-A: BLACK TAGLIATELLE
The first course arrives on a gorgeous white plate. The black tagliatelle noodles are scrunched up like hair and adorned, unlike hair, with cheese and peas.
"On the count of three," I say, and after a 3-2-1 we dig in.
"Mmmmmm," says Lisa.
"Mmmmmm," says I.
"Mmmmmm," sasy Lisa.
"Mmmmmm," says I.
The texture is perfect. The peas are large and round and bright green. The pasta is chewy but not pasty. The cheese ties it all together. A triumph.
Before we know it we are done and our plates are taken away.
PART SEVEN-B: SWEET POTATO "LUNE"
A few moments pass and new plates arrive.
"Lune," inquires Lisa, "so these are supposed to look like moons?"
"Yes," I say staring down at the four pieces of oval ravioli.
"But moons don't look like this."
"Yes they do, now eat your food," I say with authority.
She digs in and stops in her tracks.
"MMMMMMMMMM!" she says, causing heads to turn.
"How dare you!" I say, "that is not restauran------MMMMMMMMMMMMMM," I join in.
"This is the BEST thing I've EVER had," she says, eating voraciously.
"I agreeeeee," I say, practically chewing my fork.
A waiter returns with a cookie and a grater.
"Grated cookie on your pasta?
Before we know it we are done.
The noodles were soft, elegant, playful. The sweet potato inside was buttery and sugary and in perfect proportion to everything else. The herbs (sage?) took it off the too-sweet-for-its-own-good playing field. And the cookie just made it the best thing ever.
"That was the best thing ever," says Lisa.
PART SEVEN-C, D, and E:
The next three ran together, but were also very good.
The Homemade Orecchiette with Garlic and Rapini was bitter, but in a good way. It was a good follow-up to the sweet potato dish and left us feeling cleansed and grateful.
"I feel cleansed and grateful," said Lisa.
Then the Asparagus and Ricotta Mezzalune arrived and we both started to look worried.
"Oh my God, " said Lisa, "I can't eat another thing."
"Yes you can," I say, exasperated myself. "Do it."
So we eat and it is good.
"This isn't as good as the sweet potato," she grumbles, as she keeps eating. "But it's good."
Finally the last pasta arrives.
Garganelli with Funghi Trifolati.
These are spiral noodles with exotic mushrooms and it tastes fantastic but Lisa is keeling over one way and I'm keeling over the other.
"I can't do it," I finally say, "I need to save room for dessert."
"Well well well," says Lisa, head drooping on to the plate. "Look who's wimpy now."
A single tear trickles down my cheek as the waiter takes the plates away.
PART EIGHT: DESSERT!
Two courses: Ricotta Fresca and Saffron Panna Cotta. Or so we think.
The Ricotta Fresca arrives on its bed of red currants and pine nuts and we are grateful. This is doable.
"This is doable," says Lisa, eating her currants and ignoring her cheese.
I eat my cheese along with the currants and have to force myself to be impressed.
"This is mature dessert, " I say, mourning my own lack of maturity. "Some food critic would REALLY love this."
"The currants are good," says Lisa.
Our plates are taken away and are replaced with not one but TWO new desserts: the already announced Saffron Panna Cotta but a surprise serving of Zucchini Cake with Lemon Sorbet.
"Oh my God," cries Lisa, "are they trying to kill us?"
"Yes they are," I say, digging in. Everything is delicious.
"mmmmm" we say feebily, in lower case letters.
And, in a moment of true affrontery to my dessert loving nature, I stop. "I can't go on," I say. "I've reached maximum capacity."
Soon the check arrives and Lisa and are I rolled out by professional body rollers. We glide on our stomachs down the street back home.
"That was amazing," I say.
"Yes," agrees Lisa.
"Maybe the best meal ever."
She doesn't disagree.
I give her a look. She smiles.
We walk off into the rain.