Mario Batali’s Former Empire Is Thriving—as Long as He Stays Away
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- On a recent Friday night, the scene at Babbo, the downtown New York restaurant, seems much like one that’s played out on countless weekends since chef Mario Batali and his partner, Joe Bastianich, opened it in the summer of 1998. The place throbs with a high-volume soundtrack of 1970s rock stalwarts like Heart and Aerosmith. A line of customers wait for seats, peering hopefully into the main dining area, where all the white-cloth-topped tables are occupied. The menu still features Batali’s surrealistically titled dishes, including Spicy Two Minute Calamari Sicilian Lifeguard Style and Mint Love Letters, reminders of the day when Babbo was the city’s most exclusive place to eat and guests could scan the room and see Madonna, unexpectedly tiny and dressed in white, at a corner table; or George Clooney out for a date with his wife, Amal; or Bill Clinton holding court, surrounded by political and financial intimates.
Yet Babbo isn’t as bustling as it was before December 2017, when numerous women accused Batali of sexually abusing them and he became perhaps not the first, but certainly the most famous chef to fall from his pedestal as the #MeToo movement swept his industry. In the pre-scandal days, a crush of black cars waited outside the restaurant. Tonight, there’s a single SUV. As for recognizable faces, there are none in the room. By 9 p.m., the crowd, older than it was in the restaurant’s heyday, has begun to thin.
Even so, Babbo’s employees are ebullient. In March, Bastianich announced that he and his sister, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, who also manages the business of their mother Lidia Bastianich, a celebrity chef in her own right, had reached an agreement to purchase Batali’s stake in their empire, which now comprises 16 restaurants—down from 22 before the scandal—spread from New York to California. “He no longer profits from the restaurants or is involved in any way, shape, or form,” Manuali says.
As soon as the deal was announced, business at the restaurants improved, say Batali’s former employees and partners. “Almost immediately, the phone started ringing,” says Scott Woltz, Babbo’s wine director. Andy Nusser, a partner with Batali and Bastianich at several restaurants, sounds equally relieved. “It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for,” he says. “It’s like a cloud lifting.”
What goes unsaid is the obvious: A significant number of customers refused to support places from which Batali might profit. His departure is a test for what happens when a business loses its figurehead, especially someone who embodied the brand as much as Batali did. There’s little question that once his name was blackened, he became a drag on his former establishments. But to what extent will diners find his former restaurants compelling without him?
So far, the signs seem encouraging. But the terms of the agreement are more complicated than he and his family have publicly acknowledged. A document filed with the New York Department of State in early March indicates that Bastianich has pledged to Batali his interests in Babbo LLC, which the former partners have identified in court records as Babbo itself, as well as three buildings housing restaurants. Bastianich says that was part of the settlement. In other words, the disgraced culinary star isn’t entirely out of the picture. There’s even a scenario in which he could return.
On a quieter evening, over a dinner of roasted octopus and spinach pappardelle with local duck and mushrooms at Felidia, her mother’s restaurant in Manhattan’s Midtown East neighborhood, Manuali is eager to dispense with Batali and his infamy, which she refers to as “the situation.” She says his former restaurants, many of which had been run without his day-to-day input for some time, will do just fine now that he’s gone. “There’s definitely been a bounce-back effect,” says Manuali, who’s blond and energetic. “We’re very, very happy about that.”
A former art history professor, Manuali has managed three restaurants bearing her mother’s name—in New York, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh—and written eight cookbooks with her. She sounds excited but also nervous about overseeing an operation as large as the one Batali and her brother created. She stresses that she wasn’t involved in the 16 restaurants before the settlement and defers questions about the scandal and its impact to her brother. After dessert, she excuses herself and heads off to tour some of the former Batali establishments.
Bastianich is more forthcoming about the Batali blowback. In a telephone interview from his car in Italy, he says the last year or so has been painful. Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. cut its ties with the partners, forcing them to close two of their restaurants in Singapore casinos and three more in Nevada. In New York, Bastianich and Batali shuttered La Sirena, a two-year-old Chelsea restaurant that Bastianich says struggled before Batali’s fall and then became untenable once his name turned radioactive.
Now, Bastianich says, the bleeding is over. He points to Otto, a pizzeria designed to look like an Italian train station, which he and Batali opened in 2003 near New York University’s Greenwich Village campus. “NYU had blacklisted us,” Bastianich says. “The students are back. So, slowly, but surely, things are starting to pick up again.”
For more than two decades, Bastianich and Batali were one of the most successful teams in the restaurant trade. A former Merrill Lynch bond trader who abandoned Wall Street for the restaurant world, Bastianich befriended Batali in the 1990s after the chef made his mark in New York by opening Pó, a compact, fondly remembered West Village establishment. Pó was a sensation, and not just because the food was great. Batali was destined for stardom beyond the kitchen. The Food Network was taking off, and he became one of its early stars with the show Molto Mario, on which he taught guests like R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and the Gyllenhaal siblings the ins and outs of cooking Italian food. For just about anyone who aspired to go beyond warming up a jar of Ragu pasta sauce, Molto Mario was tantalizing.
In 1998, the pair unveiled Babbo, with Batali in the kitchen and Bastianich presiding over the front of the house. Restaurant critics marveled at Batali’s deployment of what were then considered left-field ingredients such as testa, better known as head cheese, and offal. They also admired Bastianich’s all-Italian wine list and his idiosyncratic approach to sales. “ ‘Try it,’ you hear him urging customers, ‘if you don’t like it, I’ll drink it myself,’ ” the New York Times reported.
The success of Babbo enabled the partners to open more places: fancy pizzerias in New York, Connecticut, Boston, and Los Angeles; a Vegas burger joint; a casual Roman trattoria in the West Village; and more fine-dining establishments, the most famous being Del Posto in New York’s Meatpacking District, which earned a rare four-star rating from the Times. They were linked together by a management services company known as Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, but the restaurants themselves were separate LLCs involving a variety of different partners.
The duo also teamed up with Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti in 2010 to open the first American outpost of his Disneyland version of an Italian market, with seven restaurants, a rooftop beer garden, a coffee bar, and a grocery store. In 2012, Bastianich told the Times that Eataly generated a third of his organization’s $250 million annual revenue. Soon Eataly spread to Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, and a second New York Eataly opened. (Bastianich declines to talk finances now.)
Batali took as many chances with his personal brand as he did with his food. He became one of the hosts of ABC’s The Chew, a daytime culinary talkathon. He wrote Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style, which he described as “the essential cookbook” for fans of the races. Even as he worked his common touch, the literati fawned over him. Batali was lionized by the New Yorker’s Bill Buford in the best-selling book Heat, which recounted the writer’s adventures as an apprentice in Babbo’s kitchen. Jim Harrison, the late novelist-poet with a side hustle as a food writer, described a dinner at Babbo as “easily the best meal I’ve ever had in an American restaurant” in his book The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand.
Bastianich, too, became a star. Once a tubby second banana who was as terse as his partner was voluble, he slimmed down, becoming a marathon runner who still drank a bottle of good wine daily but was also passionate about red Gatorade. He produced a profane and highly readable memoir entitled Restaurant Man, in which he recounted the business moves behind many of the restaurants he and Batali had opened. In particular he described how they’d acquired some of the buildings in which their eateries were located, including the former carriage house in which Babbo is situated. “Every restaurant opens based on a real estate deal,” he wrote.
Batali’s behavior, long an open secret in the restaurant world, would bring the two-decade partnership to a close. Heat ends with Buford and Batali at Lupa, the chef’s West Village trattoria, concluding a drinking binge fueled by at least 10 bottles of wine. Through the haze, Buford recalls Batali telling a waitress, “It’s not fair that I have this view all to myself when you bend over. For dessert, would you take off your blouse for the others?” An even more chilling portrait of the chef emerged in December 2017, when the website Eater reported that Batali had groped women over the years. Several months later, CBS’s 60 Minutes interviewed a waitress who said she’d been partying with the chef one night and passed out. She awoke at dawn on the floor, suspecting she’d been drugged, and found scratches on her leg and semen on her skirt.
Batali strongly denied that he’d assaulted this employee, but he acknowledged that he’d behaved abominably with women and begged forgiveness. Bastianich eventually issued his own carefully worded mea culpa. “While I never saw or heard of Mario groping an employee, I heard him say inappropriate things to our employees,” he said. “Though I criticized him for it from time to time, I should have done more. I neglected my responsibilities as I turned my attention away from the restaurants. People were hurt, and for this I am deeply sorry.”
With the scandal at full boil, Batali’s partners were eager to get rid of him. Eataly set out to acquire what it describes as “Mr. Batali’s minority interest in Eataly USA,” a process that has yet to be finalized. Bastianich needed to do the same, but it wasn’t so simple. “In the real world, you can’t force anyone to sell anything they own or snatch it away from them,” he says. “This is the reality of having to do a deal like this. You have to reach an agreement where, within the context of everything, he’s willing to sell and you’re willing to buy.”
Bastianich and Manuali decline to discuss the details of their March settlement with Batali, preferring to talk about the future. They’re preparing to open a restaurant in the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, run by chef Nancy Silverton, who’s also a partner in five other West Coast operations that were part of the onetime Batali and Bastianich empire. “We’re trying to get some things kicking again in Singapore,” Bastianich says. “I just got back from London, looking for locations. So onward and upward.”
Perhaps, but two days after Bastianich and Manuali said they’d severed ties with Batali, a two-page financial statement filed with New York state authorities suggested otherwise. It listed Bastianich as a debtor and indicated that he’d pledged his interests to Batali in Babbo LLC and three other LLCs, listed in government filings as the owners of the Babbo carriage house and two other buildings—one in Port Chester, N.Y., and another in Westport, Conn.—that house pizzerias opened and owned by the former partners. The document doesn’t provide much more detail, but it appears that if Bastianich doesn’t make good on the terms, Batali could wind up once again with Babbo and become his former partner’s landlord at the pizzerias. Patrons and potential patrons might find that troubling. Bastianich declines to discuss the arrangement, although he insists that his relationship with Batali is done. “It’s a definitive and closed transaction,” Bastianich says. “He’s completely divested all his interests, and I can’t comment on any of the specifics of the deal.” As for Batali, he’s keeping his head down. The Times reported in April 2018 that he was thinking about mounting a comeback, but then he dropped out of sight. He recently altered his website, no longer listing the restaurants he opened with Bastianich as part of his holdings, but he’s still promoting his cookbooks. Some former employees say he’s learning to fly. If you call Batali’s cellphone and you get his voicemail, all you hear is an airplane engine’s roar. —With Shahien Nasiripour
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Ferrara at firstname.lastname@example.org
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