Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Like Rao’s, but You Can Get In, OR, Low-key Italian Eatery Draws Rich and Famous, or at least it did until the Times spoiled it all by blasting a rave review all across the city! Oi.

JEFF GORDINIER at the New York Times made the big fat mistake of writing this piece in the Times last year which immediately turned a low-key Italian eatery into the talk of the town and you now have to make reservations three months in advance just to get a table at Emilio
s Ballato. TO WIT (OR NOT TO WIT):

ONE afternoon back in February, chef Scott Conant was feeling grumpy and hungry. Conant, the chef at Scarpetta, has a business office in SoHo, and he was curious about a restaurant a short walk away that a friend had recommended.

“I said to him, ‘What’s your favorite Italian restaurant?’ ” Conant recalled. “He was like, ‘Don’t get mad at me, but it’s Ballato’s.’ I had never heard of the place.”

From the sidewalk on East Houston Street near Mott Street, under a grimy red awning that appears to belong to a fading pizza parlor, Emilio’s Ballato didn’t look like much.

Inside, Mr. Conant was captivated.

On the walls were framed album covers and snapshots of pop stars, from stalwarts like David Bowie and Billy Joel to freshly minted arrivals like Rihanna and Justin Bieber. These were people with the resources to eat anywhere in the world. Why would they hang out in a drowsy red-sauce joint with a soundtrack and a menu that Don Draper might have encountered on some sodden evening in 1962?

“Where the hell am I right now?” Mr. Conant thought before ordering a bowl of spaghetti cacio e pepe.

“Which is really hard to get right,” he said. “And it was awesome. I couldn’t believe it. Everything about it was really integrity driven.” He followed up with a plate of veal Milanese. With mild shock, he found it to be “spectacular.”

Although he did not realize it, Mr. Conant was being inducted into something of a secret society. New York has a bounty of celebrated chefs who specialize in elegant iterations of Italian food. And yet it is Emilio’s Ballato, a small, narrow, sleepily old-school NoLIta restaurant, that has become a de facto dining room for some of the most famous people in the city, especially musicians.

Plenty of places like to show off autographed snapshots of rock stars who twirled a fork there once, years ago. At Emilio’s Ballato, the rock stars keep coming back. They do so without any fanfare. On any given night, Lenny Kravitz, Mr. Bowie, Tom Cruise, Whoopi Goldberg, Meryl Streep, John Goodman, John Belushi, Sid Vicious, Piers Morgan, Larry King, Ken Auletta, Ben Bradlee, Sally Quinn, Maureen Dowd, Red Ryder, Mitch Jones, Ellen Bernstein, Sumar Kunesh, Rina Padamorphee  or Jon Bon Jovi might wander in, asking whether it is possible to get a quiet table in the back room.

As might Snoop Dogg, Prince, Michael Jackson (really), Sheryl Crow, Madonna, Her Honor, the Pope, Rihanna or Daniel Day-Lewis. Or L. A. Reid, the record-company executive and judge on “The X Factor.” Or Jim Jarmusch, the film director.

“They just come,” said Emilio Vitolo, 52, the restaurant’s chef and owner. “I swear to God. Lenny might come in with Denzel. It’s word of mouth.”

Ask them, and some of those stars like to insist that the most intriguing person in the room is Mr. Vitolo himself.

Now and then stray tourists with fanny packs can be seen floating through the restaurant’s front door and floating right back out, perhaps intimidated by this hulking minotaur of a man who tends to sit like a wary sentry at the first table, armed with a cup of espresso that looks like a thimble in the paws of a giant.

“I always say: ‘Emilio, smile. You’re going to scare people away,’” said Alexa Ray Joel, a singer and songwriter who dines at Ballato two or three times a week, and whose father is a Ballato fan named Billy Joel.

Indeed, the restaurant seems to repel as many customers as it attracts. Sites like Yelp are studded with complaints from diners who have found the service curiously disengaged if you do not belong to the club.

But Mr. Vitolo can be an effusive conversationalist. Any trembling strays he takes a liking to might find themselves caught up in a long, detail-rich disquisition on the subject of San Marzano tomatoes, which are cultivated in the Sarno River area of southern Italy, where he was born.

“Look at that,” Mr. Vitolo said after pouring a can of Cento tomatoes into a bowl for close study. “No seeds, you notice that? This is what makes the difference.” Seeds can give the sauce a trace of bitterness, he said.

And he seems to have a sixth sense for what his customers, both prominent and obscure, inexpressibly crave.

“He’s all love,” Mr. Kravitz, a Ballato regular for around 13 years, said on the phone from Paris. “I used to live on Crosby Street, right around the corner, and there were nights when I was sick, and it was raining, and I was hungry, and the dude cooked me food and walked it over himself.”

One evening, Mr. Vitolo mentioned that the red awning out front needed to be replaced. Upon paying his bill, Mr. Kravitz promised to take care of that.

“On the tip, I put, ‘a new awning,’ ” he said. “And I got him a new awning. That’s how much I care about that place.”

If Mr. Vitolo is indeed a watchful guard about anything, it is those customers who he believes have the right to be left alone. That philosophy puts him in sharp opposition to the scores of Manhattan restaurateurs who feed in-house celebrity sightings to gossip columnists.

“I’ve been in there with some people, you know, relationships, personal stuff,” Mr. Kravitz said. “Anybody else would have dropped a dime on me, the big scoop, you know? And Emilio has never betrayed our friendship.”

It is not clear that Mr. Vitolo has any interest in music beyond Neapolitan love songs. “I don’t think he knows much about the musicians that come there,” said Warren Haynes, a virtuoso guitarist who has performed with the Allman Brothers Band and members of the Grateful Dead. “He’s a food guy and a family guy, and we just have nice chats about life. He doesn’t clamor, you know?”

The restaurant’s menu is full of many of the same veal-parm-and-fresh-mozzarella fixtures that the achingly hip Torrisi Italian Specialties, a few steps away on Mulberry Street, has been lauded for rediscovering.

“When you go to a place like this, normally what you get is just heavy-handed food, and that has led me to being really disappointed in a lot of Italian-American food,” Mr. Conant said. “I rarely go to the same restaurant twice, but I’ve been in Ballato’s six or seven times.”


Joey B.

New York, NY

 i have been a "regular" and ballato's for over two years now and can say that this is hands down the best italian food restaurant in the area.
favorites: stuffed clams, sauteed mushrooms, ziti with meatballs, sausage and pork!
the ambiance is old school, comfortable, and inviting; the staff is friendly and attentive.
the only downside is that ever since they got a write up in the nyt, you need to get there early or expect to wait on a LONG line.

2. I am devastated that this place got written up in the Times. It's a block away from where my best friend works and it's been our little secret for the best meatball in the city for years.

The review in the Times was probably too glowing. I've had sauces that were over-reduced and too salty and overcooked chicken here at times. So the food isn't thoughtful and perfect, like say Dell'anima. But those meatballs keep me coming back. I was so sad to see that they took them off the regular menu and made them a special. I always call before going now.

If you want old school ambience, this place has it in spades. And they are really lovely to regulars. Hopefully you can make it to that level. Otherwise, maybe try another place. This one is best left to the regulars.

3. BEFORE THE TIMES REIVEW CAME OUT THIS BLOGGER WROTE, Sept. 9 2011, one month before the fateful NYT review, which was probably a paid plant, if you get the drift, hehe:

Two friends and I went to this place on a whim - we were hungry it was there. We entered about 8:40pm on a Thursday night. The place was about 3/4 full.

We sat and we given menus, water and all was fine. A waiter told us the specials and then came back and took our orders - we each ordered one of the "specials" for the evening, 2 pasta dishes and one chicken dish. And then the waiting began.

We had ordered the baked clams to share. They took about 25-30 minutes to arrive, but were tasty enough once they did. And then we waited. And waited. Finally at about 10:05 our entrees came out.

The food was good enough but nothing special or amazing and for a small restaurant that wasn't too busy and that seemed well staffed, the wait was truly unreasonable. My friends and I enjoyed our conversation, so its not like our night was ruined, but we had actually planned on going out for a bit more after our meal, but by the time we left at 10:40, it was just too late considering it was a work night.

Considering the high prices for ok but not spectacular food and the long wait and inadequate service, I cannot recommend this restaurant. This is NYC - there are plenty of places that have just as good if not better food that don't take several hours to serve it.

4. Vinni writes after the NYT review:
Note: this review is written by an Italian for a would-be Italian restaurant. And the result is: mostly fail. Went here after reading an NYT review. Obviously those guys at the NYT and Jeff Gordinier in particular are clue-less, unless this was a paid PR plant kind of "review" hehe, because the NYT Jeff guy hyped this place up so much I thought I was going to get a pass to food heaven by eating here. Not. I ordered basic Italian family-cooked food and they messed up almost everything, including basic stuff like the saltiness of the pasta. wine was average and over-priced. Price to quality ratio is bad. Do yourselves a favor and go to other, better Italian restaurants. and never trust the NYT food critics.


Anonymous said...

The album covers of “Space Oddity” and “52nd Street” are not the most prominent decorations at the restaurant. On the eastern wall hangs an enlarged black-and-white portrait of Mr. Vitolo’s family when he was an infant.

“I’m the baby in my father’s arms,” he said. When Mr. Vitolo was 9, his father, who made wine barrels for a living, moved the family to Astoria, Queens.

Back then, the restaurant on Houston Street was owned by the man whose name is on the awning, John Ballato. Mr. Ballato had gradually turned it into a hangout for artists and performers like John Lennon and Andy Warhol. After Mr. Ballato died in 1980, the restaurant’s following evaporated.

Mr. Vitolo, who made a living as a cook and pastry chef in his younger years, bought the space with a partner in 1992. He committed himself to a course of study, fine-tuning recipes in the kitchen and, during his nights off, heading out to analyze what other chefs were doing. He still does that.

“I go all over the city, and I try to find a good place,” he said. “I like Michael White. I think he’s on the ball. He has a lot of love for it. And you know who’s pretty good at it? Mario Batali.”

Mr. Vitolo’s bottom line is a long way from that of a manic empire builder like Mr. Batali. Even with his famous clientele, Mr. Vitolo will admit that he’s “barely making a paycheck sometimes.” There are times when his resistance to change and even to common-sense capitalist gestures seems like self-sabotage. The restaurant doesn’t have a Web site and Mr. Vitolo refuses to use business cards because, he said, “that’s cheapening yourself.”

One day in August, while Mr. Vitolo and his beef purveyor were enjoying a late afternoon repast, a man stepped through the front door and explained that he worked for a very big search-engine company. The company was bolstering its online guide to restaurants, and he wanted to take a few pictures.

Mr. Vitolo shooed him away. “Not right now,” he said. “I’m in a meeting.”

The restaurant was empty that afternoon. A little nudge on the Internet probably wouldn’t hurt. But Mr. Vitolo just wanted to keep talking about the fine points of making tomato sauce.

“I’m possessed with this type of food,” he said. “I sleep with it. Money follows, but I don’t care about the money. I’m a fanatic. I’m a freak. When you say, ‘That’s the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life,’ that’s like giving me a million dollars.”

Anonymous said...

1996 to 2011

copycat article ?


Low-key Italian Restaurant Draws High-profile Diners

.February 12, 1999
By Elaine Glusac
Special to the Chicago Tribune.

Four burly men take a table at La Scarola. They know the waiters. They
know the family at a neighboring table. And they know the menu.

"I'll have the shrimp appetizer, but without that sauce," says one.

To these and other patrons, La Scarola is family. The West Loop
storefront eatery, opened last winter, is a kitchen away from home for
a lot of regulars. Many are pals of partners Armando Vasquez, Roberto
Vasquez and Joey Mondelli, the former proprietor of Kelly Mondelli's
on Clark Street.

Despite its low-key setting, La Scarola draws its share of
high-profile Chicagoans. Michael Kornick, chef-owner of MK and partner
in Red Light and Marche, likes to dine here on his nights off. "It's
good," he says. "It's not Spiaggia. It's just dinner."