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 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 restaurant on Waverly Place in Manhattan's West Village. It was around 3 p.m. and his partner, Joe Bastiavich—son of Lidia of Cooking Channel fame—greeted me at the door. Batali spent the first 45 minutes talking animatedly about old flames and the rock concerts he had attended as a college student. We moved outside to sit next door 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 by chatted him up.  

     A half-hour later he told me to follow him into Babbo's kitchen. I squeezed into a crevice and watched him play maestro as fare was plated and swooped through the door to patrons. 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, dined at a table next to the maitre d's stand the night before and made off color jokes.  

     I sensed that Babbo was only the beginning 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 had his hand in more than a dozen restaurants in NYC, Vegas, LA; and wine shops. “Eataly,”  a supermarket/bistro on 23rd and Fifth Avenue bursting with shoppers and tourists, was followed by locations in Chicago, Boston, LA, and several countries.  

     The title of the story: “Eat, Drink, and Be Mario,” is a favorite headline that 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 turned him into a culinary superhero.

     Following this story, I had a few other professional 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, spitting distance from Washington Square Park. Batali ordered. They talked. I ate till I could barely walk.

     Once a number of his female employees came forward with their tales of sexual harrassment, Batali sold his stake in his small empire and retreated from the cooking scene. I'm sure he is financially set for life. I felt bad for his wife and two sons; what a blow it must have been. I regret that I had once been fooled and ended helped create a positive image of someone to be admired. Batali turned out to be a prime example of the old cliché: You can't tell a book by its cover.