leave your inhibitions at the door
I just met Mario Batali walking on a street in downtown Ann Arbor. It was a dream come true. Well, almost. My real dream is to have Mario as a guest at one of our legendary dinner parties with the Food and Wine Hedonist crew, as I think he’ll be in Ann Arbor fairly often (more on that later).
Okay. So you must understand the significance of this chance meeting. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 not knowing who Mario Batali is and 10 being a fan ala Kathy Bates in “Misery,” I’m a . . . hmm . . . let’s say 7.5.
Kidding aside, I am a big fan. I read with relish about journalist Bill Buford’s year working at Mario’s Babbo in New York City in Buford’s outstanding book, “Heat.” I’ve been to Babbo and tried to replicate at home a heavenly plate I inhaled of fettuccini with lemon, hot peppers, and pancetta, even making fettuccini from scratch with my pasta maker (came close but not quite a home run). I’ve read several magazine articles about him. I remember an episode of “Top Chef America” years ago where he was partnered with Rachel Ray, and being touched by how chummy and encouraging he was to an obviously freaked out, nervous Rachel as she skittered about the kitchen.
And I know I’ve told at least a few people about this wish: If I could have a dinner party with any 10 people in the world, I’d invite Mario. Funny, warm, opinionated, vigorous and knowledgeable drinker of Italian wines—who wouldn’t want Mario as a dinner guest?
And finally, I have four of his cookbooks from which I’ve cooked regularly, in addition to the aforementioned “Heat” by Bill Buford. All hardcover! Now that’s a fan.
Here’s how it happened.
I was with my husband and a friend, and we’d just finished eating dinner on a lovely night at an outside table at Vellum on Main Street. As we rose to leave, my husband nudged me to look. Mario went walking by with whom I’m pretty certain was his wife Susi Cahn (of Coach Farm Goat Cheese—they sell it at Whole Foods Market and it’s delish) and two or three other people. I heard myself softly say “Mario!” in surprise, but they kept walking without a flinch. I’m sure those fan moments-of-recognition happen all the time.
They were a a good 30 feet in front of us and turned left on Liberty St., as did we, to get to our parked car. Then Mario stopped to hold a book in front of a store window. Not sure what was going on with that, but his group was laughing and taking photos of him. I stopped and watched for a second, waiting for an opening. Then I went for it.
Me: “I’ve got many of your cookbooks.”
Mario, sounding flattered and a little surprised: “Thank you!”
Me: “Welcome to Ann Arbor!”
Mario, sounding genuinely appreciative: “Thank you.”
And off we went, not wanting to be any more obtrusive to Mario and his peeps.
So how was it that Mario Batali literally walked into our lives on a mild September night? For one, his son started at University of Michigan this year. His wife went to school here too, and they have a summer home up north, as any good Michigander foodie knows. A friend saw him slurping noodles through the window at Chef Takashi’s Slurping Turtle on Liberty St. last month. And, Mario just tweeted twice from Ann Arbor today, as I write this.
This all leads up to one thing: Mario is going to be around town a lot the next four years. It appears he digs our progressive little Midwestern college town, and we are delighted to have him roaming the streets and enjoying the local cuisine in his orange clogs, fleece vest, and shorts (yes, he was wearing the Mario uniform when I met him).
So this is where I need your help . . . What if we could convince Mario and Susi to come to one of our legendary dinner parties, like this one? He could read some of the entries from foodandwinehedonist.com and see what fun people we are (and hopefully forgive my friend the Hedonist for the occasionally obnoxious post—he he). The Hedonist could help me cook. We’d impress Mario, oh yes we would. We’d invite and get help and contributions from the Architect, the Blood Sucking Lawyers, and the rest of our small motley crew of regular dinner partiers. Mario would regale us with stories, which we’d solemnly swear not to repeat, and we’d regale him with stories of . . . our exciting, middle-aged, quasi-suburban lives. Seriously, we’d make sure he had a really great time.
Want to help make the dream come true? Tweet Hey @mariobatali the @a2sicilian invites you to dinner. A girl can dream, anyway.
I’ll end this post with a Babbo classic that captures the best of autumn in delicious little pockets up pumpkin goodness, which I have made from copy of The Babbo Cookbook. And thanks, Mario, for being such a dude.
Pumpkin Lune with Butter and Sage
By Mario Batali, from The Babbo Cookbook, Clarkson Potter 2002
1 small pumpkin, or butternut or acorn squash (about 1 pound)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 recipe Basic Pasta Dough, recipe follows
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
8 fresh sage leaves
1 large amaretti cookie, recipe follows
Basic Pasta Dough:
3 1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
5 extra-large eggs
1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/4 cups whole blanched almonds
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 egg whites
Pinch kosher salt
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon amaretto
1/2 cup turbinado sugar, for sprinkling
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Cut the pumpkin in half, remove the seeds, drizzle with olive oil, and place on a baking sheet. Roast for 25 to 35 minutes or until the squash is very soft. Remove from the oven, let cool, then scoop out the flesh from the skin.
3. In a large bowl, combine the cooled pumpkin, cheese, nutmeg, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper. Stir well to combine.
4. Roll out the pasta dough to the thinnest setting on a pasta machine. Using a biscuit cutter or water glass, cut out 2-inch circles. Pipe or carefully spoon a scant teaspoon of filling onto the center of half of the rounds and cover the filling with the second pasta round. Press the edges together firmly to seal.
5. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt. Drop the lune in the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes. While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a 12 to 14-inch saute pan until it foams and subsides. Add 2 to 4 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water to the butter and whisk to emulsify. Drain the pasta and add it to the butter. Add the sage leaves and toss gently for 1 minute over medium heat to coat the pasta with sauce. Divide the lune among 4 warmed plates, grate the Parmigiano-Reggiano and amaretti over each plate, and serve immediately.
Basic Pasta Dough:
1. Mound 3 1/2 cups of the flour in the center of a large wooden cutting board. Make a well in the middle of the flour and add the eggs and the olive oil. Using a fork, beat together the eggs and oil and begin to incorporate the flour, starting with the inner rim of the well.
2. As you expand the well, keep pushing the flour up from the base of the mound to retain the well shape. The dough will come together when half of the flour is incorporated.
3. Start kneading the dough with both hands, using the palms of your hands. Once you have a cohesive mass, remove the dough from the board and scrape up and discard any leftover bits. Lightly re-flour the board and continue kneading for six more minutes. The dough should be elastic and a little sticky. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature. Roll or shape as desired.
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
2. Place the almonds, cornstarch, and confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the almonds are very finely chopped. Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer and add the salt. Using the whip attachment on medium speed, beat the whites until foamy and light. Gradually add the granulated sugar in a steady stream, continuing to beat until the egg whites are somewhat stiff and glossy. Beat in the almond extract and amaretto.
3. Pipe or drop about 2 tablespoons batter (how much) onto an ungreased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle a little turbinado sugar on top of each cookie. Bake for 15 minutes or until the cookies have begun to turn pale golden and are just beginning to crack slightly. Lower the oven temperature to 200 degrees F, and leave the oven door ajar to release some of the heat. Leave the cookies in the oven for at least 25 to 30 minutes, or until they are completely dry and crisp in the center. Allow the cookies to cool briefly on the baking sheets, then transfer them to a rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.