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 culinary universe toone of the poster boys for the #Me Too Movement.

I first met Batali inthe spring of 2001 at Babbo, at the time his celebrated new bistro on Waverly Place in Manhattan's West Village, about a half-block from the always lively Washington Square Park. New York magazine had just rated Babbo as the number one Italian rstaurant in New York City—quite the accomplishment and complement. Getting this rising star to agree to an alumni magazine profile was certainly a coup.

I arrived after lunch and his partner, Joe Bastiavich—son of Lidia Bastiavich of Cooking Channel fame—greeted me at the door. Batali spent the first 45 minutes talking animatedly about his old flames and the great rock shows he attended while at Rutgers. It was a gorgeous day, so he suggested we move outside to sit and talk on a brownstone stoop, a place where he often chilled. With his trademark shorts, orange clogs and hefty berth, he was instantly recognizable, and he clearly liked the attention from passerbys who recognized him.

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

I next followed him to his basement office for a pow wow with 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 tasteless jokes.  

At that point in his career, I would have bet the house that Babbo was only the tip of the iceberg for Batali. With his creativity, energy, business acumen, charisma, 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 my story: “Eat, Drink, and Be Mario,” is still one of my favorite titles. 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. Kudos to both.

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

Years later, I wasn't 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, a propensity to consume large quanities of alcohol and lose control.

Fittingly, he was forced to sell his stake in his empire and disappeared from the restaurant world. I'm sure he is financially set for life, and I hope he got the needed counseling. But I feel 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 always tell a book by its cover. Batali turned out to be a textbook example of that cliché.