Andrew LoPresto grew up in the restaurant industry; both his father and grandfather were bread bakers most of their lives. Following in their footsteps, LoPresto made a career out of cooking himself, working at respected eateries such as Le Madri, Ovest, and Blue Duck Tavern. Later this month, LoPresto is finally taking the plunge himself with the opening of his debut restaurant, Babbalucci (331 Lenox Avenue; 646-918-6572) in Harlem.
“Babalucci” translates to “snails” in Sicilian dialect, and the place takes cues from the ideals of slow food, with everything made in-house, including the bread and pizza dough, which utilize a slow-fermentation process that produces a light, easily digestible crust. Each one is baked off in the wood-burning oven.
The namesake mollusks will also make an appearance on the menu, in a couple of forms. One is a pizza with garlic, parsley, and gorgonzola. The other is a traditional Sicilian dish with white wine, garlic, and parsley. “It’s a romantic dish,” says LoPresto. “It’s a love affair with snails.”
Although snails inspired the name and a couple of menu items, LoPresto’s real aim is to use the wood-burning ovens as much as possible. As a kid, he worked at his father’s New York–style pizzerias and his father’s coal-oven pizza shop, Luzzo’s. But he really fell in love with making pizza and proteins in a wood oven while working the Blue Duck in Washington, D.C. “Once I started doing food out of coal- and wood-burning ovens, I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I opened my own place,” says LoPresto. “The product you get is much better, earthier, warmer.”
Pizzas include a number of classic toppings. There will be a burrata–tomato sauce–and-basil ($14/$19). Another combines sausage, garlic, Thai basil, cherry peppers, tomato sauce, and mozzarella ($14/$19). And an incarnation with mozzarella, prosciutto, and baby arugula comes topped with egg and parmigiana ($16/$21).
Sea scallops with fennel, oyster mushrooms, and pancetta ($24) will be done in the oven as well. Same goes for the whole roasted orata ($16), Mediterranean sea bream served with fennel and asparagus. A coulotte steak ($24) with grilled asparagus, mushroom, and gorgonzola cream sauce will also feature the warm notes of the oven.
Pastas, salads, and antipasto will make up the rest of the menu. Look for items like gnocchi with mornay sauce and breadcrumbs ($15), or penne with mint, peperoncino, tomato sauce, and ricotta ($13). On the lighter side, there will be fried artichokes with herbs and lemon ($10). Out of the oven, you’ll see a grilled romaine salad ($9) with croutons, parmigiana, anchovy, and pancetta dressing. Baby arugula, fennel, fig, and pecorino is tossed in citrus-honey dressing ($11) and will be presented in raw form.
Some of these dishes will be offered for free during aperitivo, during which LoPresto wants to offer traditional happy-hour bites, like pizza and finger foods, to go along with the cocktails. Designed by mixologist Enzo Cangemi, the beverage list encompasses a bit of everything, but there is definitely a strong Italian slant. Amaro- and grappa-based drinks are a centerpiece in items like the Lenox Up ($13), Grappa Nardini, peach liqueur, fresh lemon juice, ginger marmalade, and rosemary with a splash of beer. Another is the Uptown Mule ($12) with Fernet Branca, Molinari Sambuca, pineapple juice, lavender bitters, ginger beer, and allspice. Eventually, LoPresto would like to get into aged cocktails that may be featured as aperitivo specials.
When LoPresto moved to Harlem seven years ago, he knew he wanted to bring his wood-fired Italian and Italian-American fare to the neighborhood. For the past five years, LoPresto has been working day and night to make that a possibility. He’s had a couple locations fall through, and it took some time to raise the funds, but when he stumbled upon this location, everything worked out organically. “When I moved to Harlem, I realized the neighborhood was lacking in its options to eat out and it was severely lacking in pizza and Italian cuisine,” says LoPresto. “We were looking at a spot in East Harlem that didn’t work out, but this one opened up and it was a no-brainer.”
Babbalucci will be open for lunch, brunch, aperitivo, and dinner in late May or early June.