It’s 10:30 and I’ve just gotten my caffeine buzz over at Stumptown, where coffee is taken very seriously, as it should be. An iced latte is just what I need before embarking on the Mario Batali Food Tour. I live here, yes, but sometimes it’s fun to be a tourist in my own city. In fact, I highly suggest it. There’s always something new to discover.(And if you come visit, and love Italian food, do book a tour.) And though I’ve been to most if not all of Mario Batali’s restaurants, I learned quite a few things from Simona, the lovely tour guide who hails from Rome.
We meet under the arches at Washington Square Park, discuss the history of the area and the park (it was once a burial ground for those who don’t know) and then walk over to Babbo, one of my favorite restaurants of Mario’s. Since it’s open only for dinner, we don’t get to taste the food (like those amazing beef cheek ravioli with black truffles!) but discuss Mario’s start in the world of food. We cross the street because it’s hard to hear Simona over the noise of a construction truck. Such is life in NYC. Simona brings out a snack for us: rice balls from Faicco’s (a store included in my app: NYC iFoodShop), which are filled simply with rice, mozzarella and Parmigiano.
Next we head to Mario’s casual Otto where we taste antipasti: bruschetta with peppers, salumi, formaggi, arugula with slightly roasted tomatoes, and lentils, which Simona tells us are eaten on New Year’s Eve. “The more you eat, the more money you’ll make during the year,” she says, explaining an Italian superstition. Everyone seems to gobble up the lentils which have been cooked al dente.
We pass back through Washington Square Park and notice lots of bouncers, lots of activity, lots of gawkers and then we spot Alicia Keys shooting a video right next to the fountain. In NYC you never know who or what you’ll see, even during an Italian food tour.
We walk down Thompson Street to Lupa, which holds a special place in my heart for reasons I won’t mention here. There we eat focaccia and dive into bowls of feather-light gnocchi. These aren’t made the usual way, with potato. Instead ricotta is added, creating the fluffiest gnocchi I’ve tasted. Simona shares some information about grape varietals: there are 1800 in Italy; 200 in France and only 6 in the U.S. I had no idea. We all laugh when she also tells us about “cheated husband pasta,” an easy-to-make (because the wife is so busy) combination of pasta, butter and parmigiano. Simona told us earlier while at Otto that parmigiano-reggiano, is the highest quality “parmesan” because the cows are free to roam and eat only grass—and only a cetain amount of people in Parma can make it. Grana Padano is “okay” and regular parmesan is not high quality.
Next we go to Pagani on Bleecker Street. Here, we have an olive oil tasting, from mild to pungent (I love the one in the middle), and discuss how long it takes for us to go through a bottle of olive oil. We go around and some say a month, others 6 weeks, and so on. Simona, who’s a true Roman, says it takes her only one week, that’s how much she uses olive oil in her cooking. We taste bresaola, dried aged beef, then a plate of lemon pasta. Lemon is added to both the dough and the sauce, Simona tells us. The result is sublime. I plan on making this at home or heading back to Pagani, which long ago was a store of the same name, but back then it sold musical instruments.
Next of course is dessert, just around the corner on Barrow Street. Simona tells us that Dolce Gelato is the most authentic gelateria. And I have to agree: the mascarpone gelato is rich and creamy. Next time I want to try the fig and honey or the olive oil gelato, which is made from owner Salvatore Potestio’s family-owned olive oil. I’ve made a mental note to return for an affogatto. While we’re there the scent of sugar cones permeate the air: they’re being made right there in the shop, and I watch the man twist them into shape. What’s special about this gelateria is that everything is handmade, not mass produced.
It’s only fitting that we ended the Mario Batali Food Tour with a saba tasting. Saba is a syrupy concoction of reduced grape must. It’s like balsamic vinegar but sweeter, and oh so divine on ripe strawberries. After lunch or dinner it acts as sort of digestif. It’s one of the secret ingredients that I keep in my kitchen. Like fine wine and fine olive oil, there are different levels of saba, and we ended our tour with a taste of a very high end one that Simona keeps in an elegant book-like box.
Full from all the Italian treats of the day, I thanked Simona and walked off into the West Village, inspired and feeling like I’d just spent a few hours in Italy.