“It’s better than french fries,” my date exclaimed, launching another crisp shoestring of fried zucchini mouthward. Indeed, the immense haystack of squash, flanked by a pair of lemon wedges, was a tribute to the kitchen—battered like tempura and seemingly greaseless. And at $10, it’s probably all the appetizer you need, considering the size of the pastas and entrées to follow.
Ballato is an Italian restaurant that’s been on Houston Street for decades without attracting the attention of the Zagats. I must have passed it dozens of times when the Knitting Factory was a fixture on this block. Not sure why I hurried past, except that the food seemed expensive for a greasy spoon. Not long ago, the dining room underwent a face-lift calculated to bring it more in line with current ideas about restaurant design. Generations of wall coverings were sanded down to a patchy patina of sea green and buff. The renovation didn’t extend to the kitchen, however, which preserves ancient equipment and boasts surfaces painted dozens of times until there’s not a sharp edge in the place.
The food has an antique quality, too, as with many of the Italian restaurants that have persisted in the city for the better part of a century. The menu reveals southern Italian roots, featuring such dishes as a humble platter of sausage and broccoli rabe ($18), which uses a brooding morass of the bitter vegetable to separate two wonderfully plump fennel sausages. Though the tender tomato-sauced tripe ($12) is an appetizer, the quantity is enough to catapult it into entrée territory. Also in the southern Italian manner, dried pasta is preferred to fresh, though the obsession with spaghetti—offered five different ways—is an Italian American flourish. Made with prosciutto instead of the traditional guanciale, spaghetti alla matriciani ($15) is top of the heap, dressed with a poignant tomato sauce that happily errs on the side of oily. Good, too, are the Sicilian-leaning spaghetti with tuna sauce, and a tagliatelle in one of the richest porcini sauces I’ve ever tasted (though the monumentally woodsy ‘shroom is propped up with creminis).
The wine list is pricey, yet some of the bottles at the lower end are perfect for dating purposes. On the skimpy page of whites is an excellent San Angelo pinot grigio ($30) made by Banfi. Among reds, there’s Brusco dei Barbi, a Sangiovese from Montalcino with uncommon depth and a tart edge. Priced the same as the San Angelo, it functions as a low-rent Brunello.
Ready to continue onward after your immense plate of pasta? Putting on northern airs, the entrées include fillets and medallions of veal and chicken, which lack some of the oomph one expects from Italian American cooking. Better is the dish demurely described as “lamb chop, grilled.” The $36 price seems extravagant until the hulking eight-chop rack arrives charred on the outside and pink in the middle, as ordered. Roasted potatoes and a julienne of vegetables accompany.
Probably because the restaurant knows that few will ever make it that far, the desserts tend to be blasé, with one exception. The made-to-order cannoli ($6) bulges with a sweetened fresh ricotta and comes mired in enough additional filling to prevent the heavy pastry from rolling off the plate. Share it with someone you love.