So last Monday, my wife and I headed into Manhattan – I had a scheduled TV appearance and she wanted to hit a fabric store in Soho. We decided to have lunch and headed to Mario Batali’s Otto Pizzeria, which promised authentic, Italian-style pizzas, an enormous wine list (wasted on me, but I thought I’d mention it), and – according to at least two things I read on line – the best gelato in Manhattan. The pizza could be Velveeta served on cardboard for all I care, as long as there’s real gelato on the premises.
Unfortunately, the experience ended up reinforcing for me why I tend to avoid celebrity-chef restaurants. The food was a disappointment, and the menu was too heavily influenced by the chef’s whims, not by the food itself. It surprised me to run into this at a Batali restaurant; one reason I like his shows and his books is that his agenda seems to be a noble one: to celebrate regional Italian cuisine using authentic recipes and ingredients.
We ordered a funghi misti appetizer – mixed wild mushrooms marinated in herbs and garlic, delicious, earthy, and reasonable at $4 for close to a cup’s worth of â€˜shrooms. I went with the pizza of the day, a pesto pizza with fresh mozzarella. Pesto genovese is made with basil, which doesn’t take heat very well, so pizzas made with pesto typically are cooked partway before a thin layer of pesto is added. Instead, I got a pizza with a thin crust (not as thin as the ones I’ve had in Italy) and a thick layer of bitter pesto that tasted like it contained spinach rather than basil (I asked – the waitress said there was no spinach in it). There was also very little cheese, so I was eating a cracker with bad pesto on it.
My wife’s entrÃ©e was better, as she ordered spaghetti carbonara. The pasta was really al dente – I’m all for some tooth to the pasta, but even I would have left this in the water another sixty seconds – and the sauce was done right. The one problem was that the dish was extremely salty, probably the result of the huge amount of pancetta in it.
As for the gelato â€¦ we didn’t have any. The dessert menu came – it took forever, now that I mention it, and the service in general was inattentive at best – and the list of flavors read something like this: olive oil, vanilla, pistachio, coconut, ginger, hazelnut straciatella, mint chocolate chip. I might have forgotten one, but you get the idea. Notice anything missing? That’s right – nothing chocolate or coffee. Not even tiramisu-flavored gelato, which was in every gelateria I visited on my trips to Italy. At $7 for three scoops, those flavors weren’t enough to get me to stick around.