Turf warfare! New York-based restaurateur and celebrity chef Mario Batali is coming to Boston. His B&B Hospitality Group just announced plans to open Babbo Pizzeria at Fan Pier this winter. (As we know, that probably means late spring, but they’ll find that out soon enough. Welcome to the land of restaurant red tape.)
Let the whinging begin: We don’t need another pizza place. Celebrity chefs are absentee chefs. What does a New Yorker know from Boston?
And the counter-snark: The Boston restaurant scene is moribund and imitative. Only hicks get worked up over celebrity pizza. New York is so way, way much cooler. Anything they can do, we can do better.
These arguments are both predictable and outdated. New York is a huge city, a hub of business and immigration. It offers high-end dining on a scale Boston can’t sustain and affordable restaurants serving specialties from every last niche of the world. But when it comes to midrange dining, the type of restaurant many think of when they think “Let’s go out to dinner,” the two cities are peers, the borders increasingly porous.
Batali is the first chef of his stature to set up shop in Boston. That’s worth getting excited about. Babbo Pizzeria is a vote of confidence in our viability as a restaurant city, and as a place where there is money to be made. He won’t be the last. Daniel Boulud — every bit as acclaimed as Batali, if not quite as visible (those orange Crocs!) — is bringing Bar Boulud to the Mandarin Oriental. It’s slated to open this fall. These restaurants enhance Boston’s profile. Let’s hope they are more successful than Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s W hotel restaurant Market, which closed late last year.
Boston chefs, too, have an increasing presence in New York. Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette opened a branch of South End tapas joint Toro there to acclaim. The New York menu is bigger. The Boston restaurant is still better. O Ya’s Tim Cushman lent his imprimatur to the new Roof at Park South, where the cocktail list is created by No. 9 Park alum Ted Kilpatrick. (The rooftop bar is gorgeous, but on a recent evening, let’s just say it’s clearly not Cushman doing the cooking up there.)
Will Batali be in the Boston kitchen every night? No. Nor is your prune gnocchi likely to be personally pinched by the fingers of Barbara Lynch on any given visit to No. 9 Park. But Batali’s restaurants — from flagship Babbo to suburban Tarry Lodge — are well run, and the food is very good. It is Tarry Lodge chef Mario LaPosta who will be heading up Boston’s Babbo Pizzeria, a promising sign. (In addition to Italian-style pizza from a wood-burning oven, the restaurant will serve pasta, gelato, and more.)
There are some concerns. A lawsuit against Batali and partner Joseph Bastianich alleging tip-skimming didn’t exactly win them friends in the hospitality industry. Hopefully any issues were resolved along with the $5.25 million settlement in 2012. Large-scale Seaport establishments have placed a strain on the area’s restaurant community, drawing so many cooks and servers that hiring high-quality staff can be a challenge. Babbo Pizzeria’s 8,700 square feet will tax things further.
And what of local establishments like Pastoral, a brand new Congress Street restaurant with a concept nearly identical to Babbo’s? (The Seaport and Fort Point have remained separate but proximate dining destinations: Seaport gets the great views and the tourists, Fort Point the great food and the locals. But Babbo Pizzeria throws down a gauntlet: It is potentially as big a draw for food-obsessed residents as it is for visitors.)
Ultimately, these are small heirloom potatoes, wood-fired and served on a thin-crust pizza with anchovies and ricotta. I hope Babbo Pizzeria will be good. I’m sure its opening will be good for Boston.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.