If there are regular readers of this blog, they may recall that although Babbo is my favorite restaurant in the city, the last time I was there I was a little disappointing. My parents were in town recently, and since their one trip to Babbo had been amazing they were anxious to go back. To tell the truth, I was anxious as well, hoping that the one bad night didn’t signal a downward slide for the restaurant. I shouldn’t have worried; Babbo has still got the magic.
I decided to do something I had never done before at Babbo, and that was to order based on seasonality. In the past I just ordered whatever sounded good, and it usually was great. This time I was a little more careful. For a starter I got grilled Greenmarket verdure, served with a crostini and some goat cheese. Served at room temperature, the vegetables had an incredible charred flavor that most “grilled” vegetable dishes I’ve had in the past were sorely lacking. Full of late summer vegetables like zucchini and tomatoes, it was light but perfectly seasoned, and a real eye-opening dish.
I ordered one of the special pastas, spaghetti al telefono — so called because the little bits of mozzarella throughout the noodles melt slightly and pull into strings like telephone cords as you eat. The pasta was simple — golden cherry tomatoes, the mozzarella, a little basil, and something slightly spicy. The sweetness of the tomatoes coated every strand of pasta, and the tomatoes were still so juicy after being cooked that one literally exploded all over the table. The fact that the dish was so wonderful and yet so simple was truly amazing.
And then there’s the photo at the top of the page, the sweet corn fregula we got for the table. In the past I have always ordered the same side dish — a great mix of braised greens and roasted shallots dubbed “Babbo greens” — and they have always been fantastic. In the spirit of eating seasonally, though, I was tempted by the sweet corn but not sure what fregula was. So I asked our server. Fregula is a small round pasta, similar to Israeli couscous, and, I can attest, makes a truly remarkable dish with sweet corn. It was cooked like a risotto, but with small chewy balls of pasta instead of rice, and loaded with parmesan cheese, butter, and topped with fresh green onions. Every bite was salty and sweet, making you want to just eat more and more of it.
Everyone enjoyed their food — my father got goat cheese tortolloni and bass in a tomato broth; my mother got the “Babbo caprese” salad, with fresh mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes, and a whole roasted branzino; my sister got a salad of vinegar-y wax beans and garganelli with mushrooms, one of my favorite dishes.
Of course we shared our desserts. My rum cake was pretty good, but it didn’t hold a candle to my sister’s peach crostada (again, a seasonal dish). The maple cheesecake recommended by our server was also great, though my father thought it was a bit too sweet. Unfortunately, by that time it had gotten to dark to take a good picture, so you’ll just have to imagine it.
I think it’s important to remember that even great restaurants can have an off night, and that even great chefs are beholden to the quality of their ingredients. Eating seasonally is the best way to ensure you’re getting the best quality, freshest product available. Even better, when the talented kitchen at Babbo gets their hands on something they only have for a limited amount of time, they can work magic with it.