Whole roasted branzino needs nothing but a shaved-fennel salad to showcase its beauty and deliciousness.
Whole roasted branzino needs nothing but a shaved-fennel salad to showcase its beauty and deliciousness. Credit: Jeffrey Marini

One way to think of Baffo, the fine-dining restaurant on the ground floor of Eataly, is that it’s Babbo Lite. Babbo, apart from being the name of the flagship restaurant in Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s empire, means “daddy” in Italian. Baffo is sort of a condensed version of Babbo, with some dozen dishes imported directly from the New York menu and seven more that look awfully familiar. In Italian, baffo is a term for mustache, so another way to think of the restaurant is “Daddy’s Mustache.”

I haven’t eaten at Babbo, so I can’t tell you whether the imports are prepared as well at Daddy’s Mustache as they are in Manhattan. I can tell you that one of the more expensive pastas on the primi menu—little ravioli stuffed with grainy foie gras and chicken liver with all the texture and flavor of cat food, blanketed in a balsamic-brown butter goop that tasted of crystallized burnt sugar—was one of the most repugnant things I’ve eaten in recent memory. And based on a Google image search, it looks every bit as horrifying at Babbo—a black, amorphous alien life form reproducing by mitosis.

That dish hit the table after two very weird antipasti, almost un-Italian in their overcomplication or reliance on too many ingredients. One was a wobbly ziggurat of fennel-dusted sweetbreads and lardons of cured duck breast, planted on a hillock of sweet-and-sour onions, all topped off with generous dollop of treacly quince vinaigrette. The other was a more conservative variant of the great carpaccio I recently ate at Cicchetti. This one had thin slices of raw veal buried under a thick tide of tuna aioli and topped with thinly shaved cured tuna loin, the combination of the three leading to a messy chaos of flavors from which the salt emerged dominant.

It was a bad start at a restaurant that promises a lot and charges commensurately. The entrance on Grand Avenue, around the block from Eataly’s main doors, opens onto the bar and the dining room, leading to a semiopen kitchen in the rear. It has an unfinished, artificially reclaimed feel about it, the combination of both wood and ceramic tiles giving it a schizophrenic vibe. Exposed-concrete pillars have extended bars attached to them where staffers can be chained if Mario comes to town to screw them out of their tips.

Still, Baffo is a slightly stealthy importation of the Batali-Bastianich brand. Staffers don’t bandy their names about, and their faces don’t grace the menu, though a portrait of that great literary Italophile Ernest Hemingway does. I wonder how Papa would feel about some of the other antipasti, like an absurdly plated dish of sardines, each fillet lying parallel to a bump of bread crumbs bordered by dabs of bagna cauda and a streak of lobster oil, a dish whose components are impossible to enjoy in harmony. Or what about a lamb-tongue vinaigrette with little coins of gray muscle mingling indistinguishably with beech mushrooms and the flow of a three-minute egg? That dish had a nice acidic kick but no salt to bring it home.

One of the nicest surprises at Baffo is that, despite the aforementioned atrocity, the three other pasta courses I tried were excellent, consistent with the less rarefied pasta options upstairs. A straightforward pappardelle with ragu was a simple pleasure—the purity of a few good ingredients always beats the muddling of many. Same goes for a beef cheek ravioli, powerfully scented by black truffle, the fungal funk jacketed in creamy crumbles of Castelmagno cheese. A server forgot to grate Parmigiana Reggiano over a serving of garganelli, a quill-shaped pasta that was good enough naked and tangled with mushrooms—I finished without even asking for it.

Service can still be clumsy in this way, or even needlessly duplicitous: after a server promised to consult the sommelier about our wine choices one evening, our eyes followed him to a cart where the “sommelier” turned out to be a notebook he paged through for a few minutes before returning to the table with some good suggestions.

Entrees were no more consistent than the pasta. A bowl of Sicilian lifeguard-style calamari—a Batali signature dish with a thick tomato sauce brimming with chiles, pine nuts, currants, and capers—arrives at Baffo swimming in bland red water vaguely evocative of tomato. On the other hand, a pair of very clean-tasting lamb chops with sunchoke chips and chanterelles is about as uncomplicated and pleasing as you could want. A pork jowl stuffed with forcemeat and sliced into coins needed nothing more than its side of charred rapini and roasted tomatoes to complement its porky goodness. And even the most dramatic dish we tried, a roasted branzino presented whole to the table before returning to the kitchen for dissection, came back with its sweet, flaky flesh removed from the bone, crispy skin intact and needing nothing but a shaved-fennel salad and a grilled half lemon to showcase its beauty and deliciousness.

That’s the kind of straightforward treatment of quality ingredients that all Italian food, ever, should receive. The prices at Baffo are far too high to justify the ostentatious high jinks going on in the earlier parts of the menu.