Epicurious Eating: Babbo Grande
Published Thursday, 18-Mar-2010 in issue 1160
To first timers ducking into Babbo Grande for a comfort meal, the menu will seem perplexing from front to back. Italian on the surface, the pasta choices hopscotch around French crepes, Slavic-style stroganoff, BLT sandwiches and vegetarian fare. Woven throughout are breakfast options of American, French, Mexican and Italian origins, from omelets and frittatas to more crepes including one drenched in ranchero sauce.
“Somebody here is trying very hard to please everyone,” I blurted to one of my companions as four of us fell silent with indecision. Curious over the ethnicity of the ownership, our waitress said, “He’s Italian,” adding that the cooks and certain menu items were retained from the former Crepes de Paris, which apparently left a rosier impression on customers than it ever did me.
Listed within Babbo’s rambling menu is a rare find in Italian restaurants – a labor-intensive dish called braciole. The dish involves thin flank steak rolled and tied around eggs, herbs and breadcrumbs, and then braised in tomato sauce. Sadly, it wasn’t available the night of our visit. Our waitress explained that it’s a new menu item, and since the owner hadn’t yet taste-tested the chef’s recipe, it wasn’t allowed to leave the kitchen. (Nice to see some quality control applied there.)
Yet the various dishes we chose were stamped with mediocrity, neither bad nor thrilling, except for the lively caprese salad using red onions to punctuate its usual construction of fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes and fresh basil. Cruets of olive oil and balsamic on the table clenched the deal, raising the standard to any caprese that you’d encounter in fine-dining restaurants.
French onion soup au gratin (available also in vegetarian form) lacked punch. Perhaps this was the vegetarian version. The broth was thin and pale, and the mantle of cheese on top needed another minute of oven heat to fully melt and bubble up. A friend’s bean soup proved much heartier and flavorful, although it was served tepid.
That same person in our party opted for beef stroganoff crepes accented adequately with wine, sour cream and mushrooms. But the recipe fell short on meat; thus failing to impart depth and earthiness to the sauce. Needless to say, the crepes were thin and airy, and the plate took a clean licking.
Italian entrees filled the remaining quotient of our dinner. From the short list of sandwiches is a “dry” meatball submarine crowned with sautéed peppers and onions and too much mozzarella cheese (also under-melted.) It should have come as no surprise that the sandwich turned out so terribly thirsty for tomato sauce that I ended up requesting a side of it for dipping. As for the scoop of decent potato salad that came with it, we couldn’t make sense of the pairing.
A duo of manicotti ordered by a tablemate who has lost count on how many he’s eaten in his dining-out days, gave these ricotta-stuffed tubes a thumbs up. He agreed, however, that the cheese in one of the manicotti tasted vinegar-y, an oddity that I detected immediately after my fork visited his plate without returning. The other manicotti, he said, was different in that it offered pleasant hints of nutmeg.
The fourth companion in our group was the least impressed with the food, as she was unable to finish her eggplant parmesan, ranking it as “just okay.” She chalked up the side of spaghetti to that of “Chef Boyardee.” Before leaving, she took solace in a cup of soothing chamomile tea.
For dessert, our manicotti aficionado ventured into bananas flambé, set afire in the kitchen probably with a gas torch, given that the rum sauce carried overtones of a charbroiled burger riddled with the essence of butane. He liked it. I remained fearful.
Throughout our meal, dishes arrived in a timely manner, although our waitress displayed minimal intuition and awkwardness when it came to answering questions about the menu or removing spent plates from the table. Our emptied soup bowls, for instance, remained with us until the very end.
Fortunately, the booth tables are large enough to accommodate clutter. They span throughout the double-storefront space, but under excessive, bright lighting that is more fitting of a communal dining room in a convalescent facility.
On the plus side, the restaurant makes its gay-friendliness well known. Dropping from the ceiling between the two dining rooms is a rainbow Pride flag situated alongside the Bear’s flag – a welcome embrace of diversity that extends right down to what’s cooking in the kitchen.