Where’s Mario? Who cares?
While Batali’s Bastianich-family partners at the B&B Hospitality Group restaurant empire struggle to cut “Molto Mario” loose in the wake of multiple sex-abuse allegations against him, its New York eateries are still drawing big crowds — and serving great food.
Why haven’t more customers abandoned them, given the awfulness of the claims against Batali, one of which was for rape? Maybe because the chef, who has denied assaulting anyone and declined to comment for this article, has had so little to do with his restaurants of late that many regard him as a name out of the past.
“When the allegations surfaced, it had been a long time since Mr. Batali had an active management role or day-to-day responsibility for any restaurant or the restaurants’ culinary directions, although he collaborated with the chefs,” a B&B spokesman tells The Post.
As a result, many diners find the stench of unwelcome past debauchery at the B&B spots less pervasive than it is at Ken Friedman’s the Spotted Pig — the one-time celeb hangout that’s lost most of its juice since Batali was accused of disgusting acts in a third-floor “rape room.”
I last saw Batali on April 7, wearing a lost-soul face at hot new Frenchette, which he isn’t affiliated with. It reminded me that nearly all of my Batali sightings before the sex allegations arose last December were in other people’s restaurants instead of his own.
In fact, globe-trotting Batali, who has not been criminally charged and has apologized for what he termed “inappropriate” and “wrong” behavior, seemed to hang out more at the scandalized Spotted Pig — where he’s one of many investors, but not at the helm — than in his own kitchens when he was in town.
The flop of big-budget La Sirena — Batali’s first new Big Apple restaurant in 10 years when it opened in 2016 and will close at the end of this month — suggests that the chef was losing the knack for the cutting-edge Italian cuisine that first put him on the map with Babbo in 1999. His myriad TV shows, branded food products and cookbooks obscured the fact that in recent years, much of the creative glory credited to him was the work of others.
Many Del Posto dishes over time were invented by Lidia Bastianich, by former executive chef Mark Ladner and by current executive chef Melissa Rodriguez. Ladner’s unforgettable, eight-course vegetarian tasting menu, for example, was worlds removed from Batali’s rich and rugged meat, pasta and offal.
Although Batali, Joe Bastianich and Esca chef David Pasternack together “discovered” crudo (Italian raw fish) on a trip up the Adriatic coastline, it was lifelong fisherman Pasternack who made it real for skeptical New Yorkers. Batali’s popular re-interpretations of classic Italian dishes — like Babbo’s mint love letters (triangular ravioli filled with cheese, mint and peas) — tasted great. But none brought a sea change to Americans’ eating habits as did crudo, a staple today in places from three-Michelin-stars to cheap trattorias.
The Batali nightmare was the worst, but not the only, catastrophe in an annus horribilis for B&B. The company — run by Joe Bastianich and Lidia Bastianich, his mother — settled a class-action wage-and-tips lawsuit for $2.2 million. After the Batali revelations, hotels in Las Vegas and Singapore booted five B&B restaurants.
Joe Bastianich told New York Magazine this week that business had suffered “up to 30 percent” since the scandal broke. (B&B has eight restaurants in the city and 11 more around the US.)
But it turns out that “up to 30 percent” is true only at dying La Sirena, a B&B rep tells The Post. Lost revenue at the other New York places will “mostly come in at under 10 percent or less” — no picnic in a business that runs on tight margins, but survivable if they continue packing in crowds.
Talents other than Batali are keeping them afloat. Although his myriad haters won’t like to hear it, the house was recently full at four B&B places — Babbo, Del Posto, Lupa and Esca. The food was spectacular — except at Lupa, where it was merely OK, as has long been true.
Reservations remain hard to get at normal hours. Babbo was full of all-female tables. Esca was so energized, it felt like a brand new, must-try place — not an 18-year-old one. A single diner waited patiently for a seat at the cramped bar counter. She consumed a bowl of Sicilian fish stew despite lack of elbow room, a sign of a restaurant where every seat is precious.
Meanwhile, at thriving and elegant culinary flagship Del Posto, an insider said, “No one here, employees or customers, seem to associate it with Batali at all.” For sure: When a friend recently took me for its $59 three-course lunch — an incredible bargain that included exquisite “hunter-style” guinea hen with semolina dumplings — Batali’s name never even popped into my head.
The Bastianiches are desperate to distance their company from Batali — who’s a drain on their reputations as well as the bottom line. A rep for B&B told The Post, “Even knowing how complicated a transaction it is to divest, it’s taken longer than anyone expected. We expect to finalize it soon.”
Everyone’s free to decide whether they want to spend money at B&B restaurants until Batali’s gone. After all, he’s been accused of unwanted touching and verbal abuse of numerous women; of kissing and groping women, one of whom was apparently unconscious, in The Spotted Pig; and of actual rape at Babbo back in 2004. He’s being investigated by the NYPD, the state attorney general’s office and Boston police.
But while there’s no forgiving Batali, New Yorkers aren’t yet giving up the restaurants that were once synonymous with his name. With luck, they’ll survive his predations — and we’ll be enjoying crudo for a long time to come.
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