Eat, Drink, and Be Mario

A Reflection

Years later, this high-profile cover story further advanced my suspicion that magazine profiles are mostly nothing more than a relatively shallow glimpse into someone's character, or as it's sometimes called: fake news. The writer should never think they've captured the subject's essence, mostly because the individual and the people connected to that individual are always putting their best selves forward. That was certainly the case with Batali, someone who, in 2018, went from  celebrated, high profile powerbroker in the cooking world to poster boy for the #Me Too Movement.

I first met Batali in 2001 at Babbo, at the time his celebrated new bistro on Waverly Place in Manhattan's West Village, about half a block from Washington Square Park. New York magazine had just called Babbo the number one Italian rstaurant in New York City—quite the complement. Getting this rising star to sit down with Rutgers Magazine was certainly a coup.

I arrived at around 3 p.m. and his partner, Joe Bastiavich—son of Lidia Bastiavich of Cooking Channel fame—greeted me at the door. Batali came to the front from the kitchen and spent the first 45 minutes talking animatedly about his old flames and great rock shows at Rutgers. It was a gorgeous day, so he suggested we move outside to sit on a brownstone stoop, a place he normally went to chill. With his trademark shorts, orange clogs and hefty berth, he was instantly recognizable, and people walking were thrilled to say hello.

A half-hour later he told me to follow him into Babbo's kitchen. I squeezed into a crevice and watched him manage the frenetic activity as fare was plated and swooped through the door to patrons who had waited weeks for reservations. The menu, he said, was based on the day's delivery of fresh meats, fish, and produce.  

I next followed him to the basement office for a pow wow with his assistant, Lori. They went over the long reservation request list. He instructed her to shorten the wait for some members of the cast of  Saturday Night Live; others weren't so lucky. He told Lori about how Bill Clinton and Bob Kerry, the former Nebraska senator and president of the New School, had dined at a table next to the maitre d's stand the night before and made off color jokes.  

I would have bet the house that Babbo was only the tip of the iceberg for Batali—and I was right. With his creativity, energy, business acumen, and exposure on the Food Network, there would be no stopping him. Eventually, he would have his hand in more than a dozen restaurants in NYC, Vegas, LA; and wine shops. Later came “Eataly,” a supermarket/bistro on 23rd and Fifth Avenue bursting with shoppers and tourists—followed by locations in Chicago, Boston, LA, and several countries.  

The title of the story: “Eat, Drink, and Be Mario,” simply popped into my head. The “Super Mario” cover is a collaboration between art director Nina Ovryn and photographer Debbie Feingold, who dressed Batali up in the checkered tablecloth cape at her NYC studio and featured him as a culinary superhero.

Following this story, I had a few other encounters with Batali, including a tasty lunch that I arranged between him and celebrity disk jockey Matt Pinfield in 2010. We met at one of Batali's new establishments, Otto, also spitting distance from Washington Square Park. Batali ordered plate after plate. They talked. I ate till I could barely breath.

I can't say I was shocked that a number of his female employees came forward with tales of sexual harrassment. Batali clearly had a huge ego and, from what I had read in other, more detailed articles, a propensity to consume large quanities of alcohol.

He was forced to sell his stake in his empire and retreated from the cooking scene. I'm sure he is financially set for life, and I hope he got the needed counseling. But I felt bad for his wife and two sons; what a blow it must have been. Do I regret that I had been fooled and helped create a positive image for someone who turned out to be rather twisted? Like I said at the beginning of this essay: You can't tell a book by its cover. Batali turned out to be a textbook example of one of the best clichés out there.