Last week a friend and I met at Mario Batali's pizzeria Otto, located on 8th Street in downtown Manhattan. The restaurant has been open for about five years; I dined there for the first time around when it opened and remember only the lardo--or pig fat--pizza. I had never eaten a slice of pig fat before. So the pizzeria had that going for it. From my recent experience, Otto does not have much else to recommend it.
When I walked in to the restaurant this time I felt like I was entering The Peach Pit, that diner where Brenda and Brandon Walsh hang out in the TV show Beverly Hills, 90210. Every patron was under 25 years old, including the hostess, who looked like a high school senior--and acted just as professionally.
Though we had made a reservation, when we arrived, on time, my friend and I received a "train ticket," and were told to watch the "board," where, as with an arriving train, our table number would appear. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't like watching train boards. When I am standing in the LIRR waiting room at Penn Station, I feel harried and tired--which is not how I want to be feeling on a relaxing night out with a friend.
To make matters worse, when we did sit down, our waiter thought he was too cute by half, and that a broad smile from him could mask the sharp acidity of the dolcetto I ordered to drink. The wine tasted like vinegar and only letting it breathe for an hour made it palatable. For our main courses, I admit it: we erred. We did not order pizza. This being a pizzeria, that was a foolhardy choice. Instead, we ordered a bunch of little veggies in ramekins. Beets, cauliflower, brussels sprouts. They were a tad cold and oily and did not go down easily. Chunks of grayish fish in a sweet, raisiny and oniony marmalade filled another ramekin. It tasted good but resembled cat vomit . The best item we ordered was a crisp escarole salad studded with chopped almonds and dressed with a light, lemony olive oil. Actually, the olive oil gelato for dessert was great. The restaurant is known for its gelato. I had tasted olive oil gelato before, but only this one was redolent of bright green grass.
I had a sense I didn't like Mario Batali's food. Where he favors bold, meaty, fatty, I appreciate subtle, delicate, clean. More Japanese, if you will. Having just listened to the book about Batali--Heat by New Yorker writer Bill Buford--on tape, I knew the chef had an out-sized personality. I'm beginning to think that is why he is famous. He's fun! He was red hair! He wears shorts! He drives a Vespa!
One word about that Vespa: a friend lives in Batali's building. She gets annoyed that he leaves his Vespa always parked at the awning, and that he seems to think he is the coolest cat around. So my friend gooses him by acting the country bumpkin whenever they meet.
Picture this: Batali, clogs and bermudas, enters the elevator. Perhaps he is nursing a hangover. My friend is a poised, downtown lady, but when her famous neighbor is in the elevator, she goes all Oklahoma on him. In her most chipper, "the corn is as high as an elephant's eye" voice, she coos: "My, my, isn't the weather delightful today! Well I never saw such a blue sky in all my life."
My friend tells me Batali just flips his red hair and turns away. I think I will take a cue from the chef himself and give his pizzeria Otto the silent treatment.