Babbo remains the hottest ticket in town. Patrons call months ahead for a reservation and wait for hours just to sit at the bar. You’d think there’d be dozens of new restaurants trying to clone its success. But most new Italian restaurants strive for culinary authenticity, and no one has ever accused Mario of that. His spirited cooking closely resembles that of Italy’s trendiest chefs.
On the northern edge of Avenue B’s laid-back restaurant row, Barbone (“hobo” in Italian) is one of a handful of new restaurants reinventing Italian cuisine in a Batalian vein. The chef, John Baron, once worked at Babbo, as you might suspect after tasting his extraordinary chicken-liver ravioli ($12). Delicate diapers of noodle dough swaddle a filling in which the funky, crumbly organ is fully redeemed by a sweet dark sauce. It’s a creation worthy of the Iron Chef in plastic clogs. Sometimes, though, an invention goes awry: A very large Cornish hen roasted to crackling perfection ($18) flounders in a lake of fregola—which sounds like a Sesame Street mishap, right? Swamped in sweet pumpkin sauce, the fregola–a coarse Sardinian couscous–resembles a badly made risotto. And the bird’s crisp skin goes slack as it sinks into the mire.
Luckily, most of Baron’s innovations work. Barbone is the rare restaurant that makes you want to pursue the traditional three-course meal of Italy. The appetizers ($7-11) tend to be generous, which means you and a companion can split one. I’d skip the ho-hum slaw of fennel and radicchio in favor of the bresaola sided with fig-smeared toasts, the truffled polenta crusted with fontina cheese (there’s a fried egg on top too, as if it weren’t rich enough already), or Baron’s masterpiece, a woodpile of breaded and fried asparagus proffered with pancetta aioli. Bring your portable defibrillator.
From that point on, the two of you should order a pair of pastas and a single secondi, or, alternately, one pasta and two secondi. I’d pick the former, because the primi blow the secondi out of the water. There’s a great spaghetti carbonara made salty with pancetta and cheese, but the papardelle with braised short ribs is a bit on the dull and mushy side. The sweet potato agnolloti (Piemontese half-moon raviolis, $12) strewn with crushed-almond cookies reminds me of a pasta at West Broadway’s Pepolino, which itself has a pedigree that goes back to Florence’s wildly innovative Cibreo. A similar dish served in the early days of Lupa might have inspired Baron’s penne with cauliflower. Among secondi, the lamb Milanese ($22), which substitutes a thin sheep cutlet for the usual veal, is my favorite. The size of a catcher’s mitt, it too is eminently shareable.
What’s more, Barbone boasts one of the city’s most interesting and reasonably priced all-Italian wine lists. Some of the best bottles are offered in quartino (one quarter of a liter, or about one third of a normal bottle of wine) tasting portions on the first page of the wine list. Amazing is the only word for a dry red wine called Trinum from Cascina Giovinale in Piemonte (quartino $11, bottle $32). It features the three great grapes of the region, nebbiolo, barbera, and dolcetto, to produce a smooth and understated bouquet with hints of tobacco and chocolate. The “Slow Food’s Gambero Rosso” guide gives it two chalices, and who am I to disagree?