Mario Batali's in the kitchen at Otto, and I'm at a table waiting for him. There are two bottles of water in front of me: one flat, one sparkling. I'm offered coffee. I'm offered lemonade. I politely refuse, take out my notebook, and wait. And then he appears.
He appears and it's like he stepped out of the TV or the cover of one of his books. His look is iconic: orange hair, orange beard, orange clogs. He shakes my hand and sits down and waits for me to ask a question.
I have effectively suppressed my excitement. Mario's show, Molto Mario (which re-runs now on the Food Network every day at 10:30 a.m. ET) is my own personal culinary school. I TiVo it and study it, and the results have been extraordinary. I brown meat like an expert. I make pasta both from a box (perfectly al dente) and also from scratch. I roll pastry dough with authority, I get my pans smoking hot. Mario is my Mr. Miyagi, my Yoda, and yet he has no idea who I am. I'm here because Barilla is promoting its new charity cookbook, edited by Mario, and I'm supposed to ask him questions about it.
"So tell me about this charity cookbook," I begin.
"Well," he says, "it's a great thing. The cookbook's online, and for every person who downloads it, Barilla donates $1 to City Harvest. I edited it with Giada De Laurentiis and there are recipes from Ashley Judd and Kristin Davis and lots of other celebrities."
"Were there any recipes that weren't any good?"
"No," he says, smiling. "Kristin Davis actually still had her grandmother's handwritten recipe for meatballs."
"What's the L.A. restaurant scene like," I ask. "Is it different from New York?"
"Well, I was nervous," he confides, "because in New York and Las Vegas, you get three turns a night. They're A-markets. But in L.A., people go to bed at 9 p.m., so it's a very different thing."
"Do you have a place in Las Vegas?"
"I'm opening two," he says. "B & B Ristorante, which will be a bit like Babbo, and Inoteca San Marco, both in the Venetian."
"With Mozza, you collaborated with Nancy Silverton. What's it like collaborating with another chef?"
"Wonderful," he says. "Nancy can do no wrong. She's totally O.C.D., which I love. We both have similar, passionate ideologies about food."
I decide to get tough. "So with all these places in New York, L.A., and Las Vegas, how do you do it all? Do you worry you're spreading yourself too thin?"
With a big smile he says, "There've been no disasters yet, right? Plus I have great people. Nancy's there in L.A. looking after everything, and the guys I did Del Posto with are there too. I work with these guys all the time, and that's how I make it work."
As he talks, a few things surprise me about Mario's demeanor. After reading Bill Buford's Heat I expect him to be bombastic and difficult, but he's actually subdued and thoughtful. He's a natural talker and a natural charmer. He listens and responds and does so effortlessly.
"Where do you like to eat in L.A.?"
"Spago," he announces, "it's still great after 25 years. It's an all-consuming, delicious experience."
"Plus," he adds, "you see major movie stars there. I saw Tom Hanks. I met Dustin Hoffman!"
"Do you still get starstruck?"
"I do. I mean, Dustin Hoffman, man. He's iconic."
Feel the Heat
Since Heat is on my mind, as I sit here opposite its protagonist, I ask him about it. "So what did you think of Heat?"
Mario immediately perks up. "Look," he says, "Bill's a friend. But he got a lot of it wrong. It was his interpretation, and he missed a lot of it."
He leans forward. "Like he made it seem there were these huge Machiavellian power struggles in the kitchen. He made a big deal because Dominic bumped me. We were joking, that's how we joke in the kitchen."
"But," he says, "he did capture me. Rough on the edges, passionate, fanatical."
"And," he adds. "You can actually drink a case of wine in one sitting. It is possible."
I tell him that one of the things I admired, reading the book, was Mario's scholarship. He read all of Faulkner during his time in Italy.
"It was Italy," he interjects, "there's nothing to do there at night except listen to Tom Waits and read Faulkner."
"Well one of things I love about your show," I continue, "is how you bring that scholarship into the food. I love how you talk about history and geography and literature when you explain a dish."
"Tell that to the Food Network," he quips. "Food TV doesn't get that. What they're doing, and I guess it makes sense, is they're listening to what the public wants."
"I'm surprised to hear you say that," I challenge. "Your food never panders to the public. You make authentic food that's challenging and people still come to it."
"Well," he says, nodding, "then I get accused of being a bully. Did you read Frank Bruni's piece last week?"
Funny, this was going to be my next question. Frank Bruni wrote a scathing piece, last week, about chefs imposing their desires and demands on diners. It mentioned Mario several times.
"Because I play my music loud at Babbo," he says, "he's up in arms. But that's the experience I want to create. It's the unpredictability that makes it Babbo."
The mention of the loud music makes me think of Bruni's three-star Babbo review, which marked Mario down for the loud music.
"Do you read your reviews?" I ask.
"Of course," he says.
"And do the bad ones bother you?"
"They shoot me through the heart," he says, jabbing himself on the chest. "I don't forget them. I remember, when Otto first opened, somebody said the pizza was like 'Norwegian Flatbread.' Those words still haunt me. Norwegian flatbread!"
At this moment, Mario's P.R. person appears and gives me a meaningful look. My time is up: I've gone over an extra five minutes.
"Thanks so much, Mario," I say, putting out my hand.
"My pleasure," he says, shaking it.
We part ways and I leave him at the table as I put on my coat and scarf and gloves. I feel like a Kung-Fu hero: my master has shown himself and shared his wisdom and now I'll return to the world enriched. I go outside, karate kick the air, and carry on down the street.
I am molto ready to cook dinner like a master.
About the author: Adam Roberts is The Amateur Gourmet. His book, The Amateur Gourmet, will be published by Bantam/Dell in summer 2007.