Blabbing With Mr. Babbo

Julia Sexton asks the James Beard Foundation Restaurateur of the Year Joe Bastianich about his restaurants in Manhattan, his life in Greenwich, and his new venture in Port Chester.

Winemaker, Italian wine merchant, top-flight restaurateur, and son of Lidia Bastianich (a star in her own right as restaurateur, cookbook author, and host of PBS’s Lidia’s Italy), Joe Bastianich is a force of restaurant-world nature. His partnership with Mario Batali launched some of Man­hattan’s best-loved restaurants—including Babbo, Esca, Del Posto, Casa Mono, and Bar Jamon—and nudged competing restaurants toward a new authenticity in Italian regional food. Not content to cling to the East Coast, Bastianich, et al., also are responsible for three Las Vegas ventures, and, most recently, they’ve teamed up with La Brea Bakery’s Nancy Silverton for Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza (famous for its house-made mozzarella and mozzarella bar) in Los Angeles. By all reports, these two white-hot spots have trendy Angelinos lining up for days.  

Other restaurateurs, spread a little thin in their Icarus-like bid for world domination, might let things slide at their older venues. Not Bastianich and Co. This Greenwich resident and father of three just won the 2008 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurateur of the Year for his work at the well-curated—nearly didactic—Babbo. This is the regional Italian restaurant that started it all in 1998, when then 30-year-old Joe Bastianich first teamed up with Mario Batali—a young phenom just coming to press attention at a tiny Greenwich Village restaurant, Po.            

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Given Bastianich’s trajectory, it would be easy to plot his next venture in London, Miami, or even Dubai. In fact, you’ll find it in Port Chester, in the once-decrepit structure that housed Tarry Lodge. I caught up with him to talk about his plans for the space, as well as living and eating around Westchester.  

Q: Okay, we’ve been teasing our readers since you bought Tarry Lodge, way back when. What are you putting in the Port Chester space?
JB: We’re restoring the Tarry Lodge. We’re doing a historical renovation of the building. The restaurant will serve Roman-style pizza and very traditional trattoria fare with an extensive wine program. It’ll be an easy-access family venue.

Q: Are you doing the Osteria Mozza mozzarella bar ?
JB: We’re not doing a mozzarella bar, but we’ll be doing traditional wood-fired, brick-oven pizza, pasta, protein. It’ll be the kind of place that’s casually priced with a real focus on purity of ingredients and sourcing the best ingredients.

Q: Are you going to serve the Cesare Cassella products—the Tutto Bene Ranch stuff?
[Editor’s Note: Chef Cesare Cassella, a friend of Bastianich, helped to develop a husbandry program raising Italian heritage-breed Chianina cattle near Monticello, New York. He also owns an heirloom Italian dried-bean importation company called Republic of Beans.]
JB: We’ll source from all our friends. And Andy Nusser, who is our partner at Casa Mono and Babbo, among other places, will be the chef. And really, that’s it. We want Tarry Lodge to be the kind of place that people can go to all the time—an experience that’s an alternative to eating at home. It’s not going to be true fine dining; it’ll be an eating place.

Q: And family-friendly?
JB: Absolutely.

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Q: How big?
JB: About two-hundred seats.

Q: Construction at Tarry Lodge seemed to go on forever. Why so long?
JB: Because we weren’t in any rush. We wanted to do a very precise restoration, so we sourced a lot of antique tiles, decorative pieces, doors, hinges. We spent a lot of time getting architectural antiques. And we had other projects lined up ahead of it so we couldn’t get to the opening until now.

Q: Who’s designing it?
JB: Lisa Eaton. She’s kind of our in-house designer; she oversees the design of all our restaurants and works with different architects. And the architect of record is a Port Chester architect named Michiel Boender.

Q: You have restaurants in Manhattan, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and now Los Angeles—all cities. Why are you expanding into the suburbs?
JB: It’s close to home. You know, for my wife, Deanna, and our children, it’ll be a place to eat. No, that’s not why we opened the restaurant. We’re really excited about Port Chester. We think it’s a great restaurant community, and it’s strategically placed. I always say Port Chester is the best restaurant location in Greenwich and Rye.

Q: How will your first suburban venture differ from your urban restaurants?
JB: I imagine that it will end a little sooner at night; it probably won’t be open as late. I imagine it will have more family dining than we’re used to in the city. But basically the rest is pretty simple: we’ll be trying to serve great food to good people, keep it product-focused and real, not mix it up too much. To be value-driven is important, too—especially in a residential area where people are feeding their families and spending their own money.

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Q: Did you need to research Westchester’s dining habits?
JB: As a nearby resident, I researched them by participating in them. I found that the good restaurants were very expensive, and it was hard to find real quality at a moderate price point.

Q: So, when you eat out, which local restaurants do you like?
JB: Oh, so many. I like Elm Street Oyster House in Greenwich. I like Rebecca’s [in Greenwich] if I want something fancy.
Kira Sushi [in Armonk] is probably our highest-volume visit because my wife likes it; she goes there all the time. I like the place that makes the tortillas right out front [Tortilleria Los Gemelos in Port Chester]; we call it the Tacqueria de Mexico. We think the Kneaded Bread [in Port Chester] is great. I had a good panino at Nessa recently. There are a lot of great restaurants.

Q: There were rumors circulating that you were checking out spaces in Hastings-on-Hudson, and other towns. The rivertowns are pretty hot; why did you finally settle on Port Chester?
JB: Everyone I know in Greenwich, when they go out to eat, they go to Port Chester. So that kind of taught me something. Everyone we know in Rye goes out to Port Chester, too. After we bought the Tarry Lodge, we realized what a great amount of nostalgia there was for the name and the restaurant and the location. Everyone knew it. Everyone celebrated their high school graduation or their birthday there in 1950 or 1940 or whatever. So we thought we should re-conceptualize it and bring it back to what might have been its former glory.

Q: So it’s still gonna be called the Tarry Lodge?
JB: Yep.

Q: The wine list: is it going to be primarily Italian?
JB: All Italian.

Q: And the menu?
JB: It’s a classic trattoria menu, so antipasti, primi, secondi, a little bit of everything. Some of the proteins may be more large portions, so steak for two, pork chops for two, whole roasted chicken for two—kind of lending itself to some more family-style stuff.

Q: I talk to restaurateurs a lot, and they’re all a little nervous about the current economic situation; restaurant revenues have been down. Has the current economy affected your expansion plans at all?
JB: Not at all. I mean, would I do another four-hundred seat steakhouse in Vegas? Probably not. But I think that if you are serving quality, these little troughs in the economy are a good way to pick out some of the lesser quality restaurants. People are always going to eat out. Yeah, you might make a little bit less money, but it’s a good time to reevaluate what you do. I always try to turn it into a positive experience.

Q: So Tarry Lodge be lower-priced?
JB: Well, kind of value-driven. I mean, what’s a lower price point? At Tarry Lodge, you could have a ten-dollar pizza Margherita, but you could also have an eighty-dollar rib eye for two, prime, and that’s just about what it costs to put it on the plate. So it’s not about the absolute dollar amount. It’s more about giving people real value at whatever price point.

Q: How about Italian wine merchants, your wine market? Have you noticed people buying less?
JB: The top of the tier, the collectors, are still buying aggressively because, at the top end of the wine world, it is as much about consumption as it is about investment. And I think the investment portion of the market is still very active because I think that everyone believes that wine will only get more expensive as the world goes on. But in restaurants, maybe the consumption is a little more moderated; we don’t get the kind of Hooverish wine purchase that you might have gotten two years ago. But I think people in Italian wine, we have a unique advantage: there are a lot of food-appropriate, great offerings at moderate price points. So Italy has a lot to offer in interesting and mostly indigenous wines that pair well with the food and customers are very receptive to that.

Q: On indigenous wines, do you think people are getting more familiar with the breadth of Italian wines? Everybody recognizes a Barolo or a Pinot Grigio, but there are so many little local Italian wines…
JB: Absolutely; that’s happening. Italy has such a diversity in its cuisine and its viticulture, much more so than France or Spain. And the great thing is, at least in a community like this, lots of people go to Italy. And then they come back and, if you can offer them a bit of the authenticity that they remember, the reality of that experience, they appreciate it and they’ll come back.

Q: You grew up—literally—in the restaurant business with your mother’s career and restaurants. A lot of people might be sick of it. Did you always want to be in the business?
JB: I was in finance and I fell back into the restaurant business, primarily on the wine side. It’s more of a lifestyle than anything else; it’s what we do and how we live our lives. We’re fortunate enough to make a living doing what we love to do, and having food as a part of our family and our lives. It’s a lucky position to be in because, obviously, there are a lot of great things that come with this life.

Q: I’m curious about your going into winemaking. Wine drinking—and selling— is a lot easier.
JB: Well, the winemaking is where my attachment to the business all started. I lived in Italy in my teens and after college, tasting wine. I got into the restaurants and into winemaking pretty quickly after that. I started making my first wines in 1997, in Friuli. That was the first vintage, and I loved it; winemaking is my true passion. One of the most unique privileges in the world is to be able to participate in viticulture and the life cycles of the vines. I have three young children and I look at working in the winery as really working for them. It’s one of those rare businesses that’s truly trans-generational. It’s also one of the few things in this world of immediacy and control that we have no control over. We’re participants and observers of the cycle of the vine. It teaches us humility and perspective and teaches us about the world and who we are.

Q: But if the restaurant business is tough, certainly vineyards are even tougher. You’re dealing with weather, pests, diseases—it’s a scary thing.
JB: Well, you’re dealing with Mother Nature.

Q: Your business—and, to a certain extent, your family—were one of the subjects of Bill Buford’s bestselling book, Heat. Do you regret giving him all that access? Did the book bump up sales? How do you feel about it now?
JB: I think it worked out fine for me, though Mario might think differently about it. Ultimately, it’s mostly accurate and he did what he did with it.

Q: How did you manage to lose weight with all the foods of all your restaurants?
JB: I’ve been training to run the marathon for a year now. I’m going to run maybe the Hartford and certainly the New York City marathon coming up in the fall. I’m turning 40 this year, so I have a couple of objectives, with the marathon being one of them. I just hunkered down and focused—I’m very goal-oriented.

Q: Apparently. But was it tough? You’re surrounded by some of the best food in New York and the all the best wines, too!
JB: That’s not an excuse. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Being surrounded by food and wine is no excuse for gluttony.


A few words with Chef Andy Nusser

Andy Nusser, as anyone who’s read Bill Buford’s bestselling Heat knows, is the chef, partner, and general instigator of the only Bastianich/Batali restaurants to step outside the Italian idiom, Manhattan’s Spanish-themed Casa Mono, and its Iberian-ham-focused offshoot, Bar Jamon. Given his Iberian bent, it’s not surprising that Chef Nusser grew up in Spain. He now lives in Hastings-on-Hudson with his wife, Patty,and their two children, and he’s a partner in (and heading up the kitchen at) the rejuvenated Tarry Lodge.

JS: Tell us about the menu.
AN: Well, it’ll have ten antipasti, ten pizzas, ten primi, ten secondi, and eight desserts.

JS: I know that Anthony Mangieri [of Una Pizza Napolitana] is picky about the wood that he uses. Are you? Also, where are you getting your mozzarella?
AN: We’ll be burning almond wood in the pizza oven and the mozzarella will be coming from Campagna. We’re sourcing the other cheeses from all over Italy—the olive oils and other ingredients, too.

JS: Re-reading Heat recently, I came to feel like your heart and soul went into Casa Mono and Bar Jamon. Are you going to be spending lots of time up here?
AN: Yes, I will; I’ll have to. I’ll really need to be here to get this all up and running.

JS: You live in Hastings; do you eat out often near home?
AN: To be honest, I’m always working, so the answer is no.

JS: I asked Joe Bastianich this: why the move to Westchester?
AN: I feel like we’re needed here!
* * * * *
Chef Nusser sent us a list of some dishes from each course; here they are:

Antipasti: Asparagus Milanese

Pizza: Heirloom tomatoes with burrata
and opal basil

Primi: Fusilli ala crazy bastard—fusilli,
garlic, roasted cherry tomatoes,
beet greens, goat cheese, and walnuts

Secondi: Grilled guinea hen with
treviso and oranges

Desserts: The Tarry Lodge Sundae


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