2007_01_food_mario.jpegMario Batali, Iron Chef, TV personality, cookbook author, and restaurateur sat down with us at Otto Enoteca Pizzeria in Greenwich Village to discuss his latest philanthropic project -- a cookbook with recipes from celebrities, including the likes of Kristen Davis, Ashley Judd, and Harrison Ford. Mario paired up with fellow Food Network chef Giada De Laurentiis to edit the recipes. The cookbook is free and available online at CelebrityPastaLovers.com. Each time the book is downloaded, Barilla pasta will donate $1 to America’s Second Harvest, or one of its local branches, up to $100,000

Why do you think people view pasta as comfort food?
The term “comfort food” to me sounds a lot more like something mushy, like risotto, or meatloaf, or macaroni and cheese. But for me I guess it fits into the comfort food category because it doesn’t have to challenge me and it’s intimately satisfying. It doesn’t quite fit into the comfort food edge because I like it to be al dente, which is a challenge to your mouth, which is why it’s so delightful when you eat properly cooked pasta, because there’s a little resistance and then you’re in.

If we always want to have ingredients on hand to make a great pasta dish, what do we absolutely need to have in our pantry?
Great olive oil, great tomato paste, canned tomatoes, anchovies, hot peppers, breadcrumbs . . . and parmigiano reggiano. You could even make it without the cheese, although the cheese is fundamentally one of the main reasons Americans are likely eat pasta. I think that if they try it with breadcrumbs instead, there’s a visceral satisfaction to it, although the carbophobes would have a really big issue with breadcrumbs on top of their pasta.

But they wouldn’t be eating pasta anyway, so who cares?
In our restaurants, we sell a lot of pasta – and I think that what Americans have stopped eating is bad pasta. Even people on super carbo diets, when they come to Babbo, they have a plate of pasta. Maybe they split it with somebody as a midcourse or something, but they are definitely still eating pasta in America. And I thought, you know, if you read the hype, you’d think that nobody’s eating pasta or bread, but I’ve got a pizzeria restaurant and a spaghetti restaurant, and they’re doing okay.

Pasta on the menu gives people, particularly people with kids, another option. We sell a lot of it and we do it right. If you want a perfect plate of penne pomodoro delivered to your house when it’s 17 degrees outside, we’ll do that. My kids had it last night and they were just so pleased. Plain old penne with tomato sauce and a little parmigiano reggiano and man, it’s really a great thing. We order once a week from Otto, when we have a babysitter – the kids love it.

Do your kids cook?
They can. My ten year old son, at this point, can go into the kitchen and, without a recipe, make cookie dough of some kind. It’s not the same every time, but he just knows what it looks like, which is a lot earlier than I ever was involved. I mean, I could make, out of a package brownies and cakes, but not just wing it together. He might be a visionary.

Back to the cookbook. How the did recipes come to be? Did they send you something? Did you actually have a conversation with them?
All recipes were sent to me. I didn’t converse with anybody except for Kristin (Davis). Some of them just sent me an idea. Ashley Judd’s was tortellini with pumpkin. And my first thought was, “God, I have to make the tortellini recipe? Nobody’s going to make that.” But they have great tortellini, Barilla, dried ones that are killer. You can actually virtually buy a can of pumpkin puree, like for the pie, throw it in with brown butter, and you have something that does not taste like you bought it out of a package. So some of them were that revelation – she had just described it to me: pumpkin tortellini with butter and sage – so I made one up. Kristen actually had her mom’s handwritten little card with the meatball recipe. She gave it to me; of course I gave it back, but I just made all the recipes consistent. We tested all the recipes that we did and just basically, I kind of squeezed them into my world or squeezed my world into their food.

You do a lot of work with food-related charities. Do you think chefs have an ethical obligation to do food-related charity work?

Absolutely. In addition to chefs, Americans. The sad tragedy is that in the richest country of all time, there are hungry people – it’s pathetic. And we’re sending people off to go to war in places to protect our oil or whatever the politics is – it doesn’t really make a difference, it’s not even that high of a level. On a basic level, everyone should be able to read, everyone should be able to go to the doctor, and everyone should be able to have dinner every day – hot dinner every day. And that we don’t do that already is a flaw that will be looked at historically as such a fuck-up. There’s a lot of arts out there – I get asked to do hundreds of charities a week – and I only do hunger relief and children’s diseases. Because until that’s taken care of, what the fuck do I need the symphony for? I mean I appreciate it, I’m happy about it, but they don’t need me to work on that, they need somebody else – somebody who’s apologizing for making billions or something. The arts are a great and valid thing, but until nobody’s hungry, I just can’t see me spending any time on it.

We did notice that the Bucatini all'Amatricana is the special this week at Otto --coincidence?

No. We have a lot of guancale in the house now, which is the main ingredient, and some things just happen right. It’s going to run all month. The book [where this recipe is featured] goes online February 1.

What are your neighborhood favorites?

Pearl. Pio Maya. We always get up in the morning and talk about what I’m going to make for dinner. Normally I make dinner on Monday or Tuesday but this week I made dinner on Sunday – a beautiful roasted pork loin with applesauce – really killer. And the kids asked today, "what about Pio Maya tonight?" It’s so good – have you had their flautas? Everything’s right. Do you know the story about that guy? He used to work here. And now he’s the owner, it’s the American dream. That’s what I want all my guys to do. It’s such a home run on every visceral level. He didn’t do it in Brooklyn or out in Queens somewhere, he did it on our block. So we support him a lot. If you go in there any day of the week, and there are thirty people in there, ten or fifteen are from my restaurants. Because they love him too. It wasn’t just that he did a great job, he’s a great guy.

When I want to go out to dinner where I have waiter table service and I just feel like salad and a steak, the Knickerbocker is still a very good restaurant. It’s a weird, sort of very Villagey crowd – no outsiders allowed, it seems. And they’re all kooky and they sit in those booths for much longer than they should, but it’s consistent, and I like the vibe of not being in a chef-driven restaurant. The chef’s great, but it’s not about the chef. It’s just delicious food and a cool vibe. What are your faves?

Also Pearl, and Pio Maya.
Do you go to Momofuku?

We do – we just went to Ssam Bar again recently.
You know, I haven’t been there yet, I’ve got to get over there. Another example of good things happening to the right guy. [Note: our sources saw Mario at Momofuku Noodle Bar the following day with Heat author Bill Buford and his former mentor, Marco Pierre White]

We also love ‘ino and ‘inoteca.
I love ‘ino. You know, I don’t get down to ‘inoteca because that neighborhood’s too hip.

We’ve seen you at ‘inoteca.
Yeah, a couple of times, but it’s very hip – studiously hip. And I love Jason and everything he does but I don’t go there as much as I probably should. I go to the Spotted Pig a lot more than that. The best time to go to the Spotted Pig is from two to five. Great late lunch, laid back atmosphere, and the burger is great.

You have a lot of people who stay in your inner circle. To what do you attribute that?
Once they’ve risen to a certain level, maybe they’ve reached the ceiling of their potential in one restaurant, but there’s always somewhere else for them to go. We don’t like to train them as well as we do and then let Steve Hanson or Danny Meyer have them – we try to keep them for ourselves, which eventually leads to ownership. Look at Andy (Nusser) at Casa Mono and Mark Ladner at Del Posto, Dave Pasternak – these are all positions that developed an ownership because we want them to be successful and share it with them.

How are things going in Vegas [where Mario is working on new restaurants B&B Ristorante and Enoteca San Marco] ?
Crazy! Zach (Allen) is out there just trying to – it’s like swinging a broom in a gymnasium. There’s so many things you have to get done and you just can’t get to them. He’s started to realize the pressure’s on. We’re going to try to open March 7th.

Okay, so we should plan our trip out there . . .
March 8th.

photo courtesy of New York Observer