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Dining Out | Devra First

At Boston’s Babbo, Batali’s fame is beside the point

Vongole pizza with tiny clams in their shells, garlic, oregano, chile, cheese.
Vongole pizza with tiny clams in their shells, garlic, oregano, chile, cheese. JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF/Globe Staff

There are a lot of things I expected to write about when reviewing Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca, celebrity chef Mario Batali’s 8,700-square-foot restaurant on the South Boston waterfront.

Whether the pizza is good. It is! Except when it’s not. One of the most mysterious features of Babbo Pizzeria is its inability to produce consistent pizza. You know how it goes. You pull your pie in close, ready for action. Then it happens: Slice slump. Crust collapse. Dough dysfunction. First the tip droops. Then the rest of the slice follows. Cheese slides; toppings tumble. The slice’s edge is crisp, thin, and willing, but the body is weak. This is what occurs with two out of three pies at Babbo. They all taste great — from the clean and simple Margherita to the prosciutto and arugula, from the vongole, topped with tiny clams in their shells, to the pie spread with goat cheese, pistachio, red onions, and truffle honey, an unusual and balanced combination. Tomato sauce seems to be the major culprit, but even white pies sometimes arrive soggy. That vongole pizza is an exception, cracker-crisp and charred; aside from clams, its only toppings are garlic, oregano, chile, and grated cheese.

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Whether the place deserves the hype. It does! Except when it doesn’t. Batali is a ginger-haired, fleece-vested ambassador for Italian food, instantly recognizable. He and partner Joe Bastianich, as B&B Hospitality Group, run about two dozen restaurants, many in New York but some as far-flung as Singapore and Hong Kong. (Their New York Babbo is more upscale than Boston’s, which bears a greater resemblance to New York’s Otto. But that name was already claimed locally, to Batali’s chagrin, expressed at the time on Twitter.) Then there are the television gigs, cookbooks, and ginormous Eataly markets, one of which is slated to open next year in the Prudential Center. Having Batali in Boston is a good thing for the city, as I’ve written before, even if his presence won’t affect transportation infrastructure or dominate headlines until today’s toddlers are teens.

That Babbo opened in the Seaport, tourist central and home to shiny large-scale restaurants, says more about circumstance than intent: Batali and Co. originally aimed for a location in Fort Point, where life happens on a smaller, more-locally geared scale. Its presence by the water is better for existing Fort Point businesses like the similarly themed Pastoral, and it’s better for anyone who wants to eat beyond Congress Street. Because the food is imperfectly good, which is a whole lot better than perfectly bad, which elevates Babbo above more waterfront restaurants than it should.

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A gnocchi dish.
A gnocchi dish.JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

In addition to pizza, pasta is the other mainstay of the menu, which is overseen by executive chef Mario LaPosta (Tarry Lodge). Gnocchi themselves are middle of the road, neither disappointingly leaden nor upliftingly light. They are but a vessel for the savory sauce of oxtail and tomato that would taste good served on a Croc. Agnolotti are tiny dumplings with a pea filling, tossed with peas, ramps, and lemon. This should be light and bright, but heavy salting — a problem for many pasta dishes here — overcomes its spring-like nature.

Lupa, another of the group’s restaurants, is known for its cacio e pepe, little more than strands of pasta with cheese and pepper, memorable for its perfect simplicity. Babbo Pizzeria’s version is made with rigatoni, and it’s unrecognizable — gloppy and fatty where it should be pared-back and refined, sauce oozing onto the plate rather than barely clinging to the pasta. The tagliatelle Bolognese is solid, the linguine with crab, jalapeno, and breadcrumbs bland.

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So the menu has ups and downs. Salads are up, from a simple combination like spinach with ricotta salata and truffle honey to the “Babbo chopped salad.” It’s a version of a dish created by Los Angeles chef Nancy Silverton, who owns the Mozza restaurants with Batali and Bastianich. A gloriously retro Italian-American antipastipalooza, it is a confetti toss of crunchy iceberg, cheese, salami, chickpeas, and more. If you are a bread avoider with a weakness for Italian subs, this is your salad right here.

Some vegetable dishes — olives, roasted beets with pistachios — work well in a spread of snacks. (Don’t expect your server to be able to tell you which variety of olives he is delivering. Service can be green, and sometimes overly familiar, although staffers know their wine.) But cauliflower tastes off, perhaps due to too much pungent olive oil. Octopus with shishito peppers is nearly inedible, tough, oversalted, cold. The temperature is a choice not an oversight, but it comes as a surprise. Same goes for calamari Siciliana, another version of a favorite (hot) Batali dish. Tender rings in a zippy tomato sauce with Israeli couscous, it works better chilled than the octopus.

Duck leg from the wood-burning oven, over fava bean puree, with a sweet-and-sour sauce.
Duck leg from the wood-burning oven, over fava bean puree, with a sweet-and-sour sauce.JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Meatballs are tender, skewers of lamb nicely grilled, drizzled in salsa verde. But for pure meaty pleasure, order sausages, made at the team’s Tarry Market in New York. Sweet and hot links feature coarsely textured fillings bursting with flavor. Another greatest hit: duck leg from the wood-burning oven, crisp-skinned over fava bean puree, splashed in a sweet-and-sour sauce.

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Gelato with toppings.
Gelato with toppings.JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Dessert centers largely on glorified ice cream sundaes. (Call it a coppetta if you want. It’s still gelato with a bunch of toppings.) Excellent olive oil gelato appears with lime curd, strawberry granita, pine nut brittle, and basil syrup. It looks like ’80s gourmet fare in its stemmed glass, but it tastes as fresh as can be, a lovely combination of flavors and textures. (For something less refined, it’s hard to argue with a coppetta of chocolate and Harpoon stout gelato with candied peanuts and coffee bourbon sauce, or one featuring hazelnut stracciatella and gianduja.)

Babbo is a big space, often full, lined with wood and patterned tile, walls painted nutmeg. From the ceiling hang black lights that look like overturned colanders. A marble-topped bar lines one side of the restaurant, with bartenders you may recognize from other local restaurants concocting Aperol spritzes and Negronis. (Beverage director Joshua Cole has worked at Puritan & Company, Craigie on Main, and more.) Local beer is on tap, with Italian imports available by the bottle. There are two varieties of Lambrusco by the glass, excellent with pizza. Wine is served by the quartino — Bastianich’s own “Adriatico” Friulano, the excellent Cantine Valpane “Euli” grignolino. The bottle list visits every region of Italy, and every price point.

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Which brings me to the thing I did not expect to write about Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca: It is one of the Seaport’s best deals. And compared with many other restaurants opening in the city, it is positively affordable. So yes, by all means, visit Babbo, for good food and good value in a relaxed atmosphere. Celebrity is the least of its attractions.


Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.