25 January 2013

The Cold & the Soul: Emilio Ballato

Cab drivers love this weather. Bitter cold but bright without snow or ice. A wind comes around a corner and slaps me in my face and wallet. Easily walked blocks a couple weeks ago turn into, "Are you fucking kidding me?" I hail a cab, jump in and tell the driver, "It's just a few blocks but I'll make it worth your while."

I learned to take the good with the bad in this weather after 20 years in Chicago. It didn't matter how warm you dressed, it was gonna hurt. Brain freeze headaches. Frost bitten ears. Toes and fingers, despite the cashmere, feeling like they were falling off one by one --

But the city is beautiful in this bright Arctic light. Buildings look taller - harder - steadier. Unlike Summer's undulating heat mixing with hot dog water from a cart and a smell coming up from a subway vent that's so bad -- you don't wanna know what it is. You'll walk the five blocks because you can. Heat is annoying but it's not out to hunt you down and kill like Winter.

Soft living in southern places didn't prepare me for Chicago. Just before moving, a buddy looked at my gloves, "You'll have to get rid of those." "Why," I asked, spreading my fine black leather fingers of  lined Brooks Brothers cashmere. "Because," he said, "Those are not Chicago gloves - They're pussy East Coast gloves." He was right.

I walked east on Houston and just before Mott there was a black wrought iron sign looking like something from Europe circa 1780. Severe and purposeful, it's magic worked. Peaking my curiosity, I look at the building it's attached to and see a restaurant window with fat gold script spelling out, "Emilio Ballato."

There's a picture from the '60s over the menu with a recognizable Warhol in line behind an unrecognizable taller man with his back to the camera. A man stops next to me and tells me it's a wonderful place and that I have to try it. He smiles and moves on, like he did his good deed for the day. I shout 'thanks' to his back and frame the photo of Warhol in my camera. I snap the pic and another man stops and tells me what a great place it is and adds that the man's back belongs to Jimi Hendrix.

A minute later, as I peek between the letters and see a long room filled with picture frames and a thick air of years, a woman walks by and without stopping shouts, "It's great." New Yorkers are certainly food and restaurant proud, but this isn't Atlanta or Denver where unsolicited advice to strangers on the street is considered normal and, y'all, friendly.' "Purdy bad weather, huh? Well, you know what they say about Denver -- If you don't like the weather - just wait a few minutes...a ha ha ha..."

I get home and there's a message on the answering machine from The Nephew who's in town from Chicago and looking to buy the Golf Foxtrot (GF) and myself dinner. I get him on the horn and tell him my Ballato story. He tells me he's game... but not to shoot him. A ha ha ha...

Despite having to hang up our own coats, there's a warmness to Ballato I saw from outside. Narrow, but not too close. It's honest looking. Nothing 'Olive Tree' about it. In fact, just saying 'Olive Tree' in this place should be completely horrifying to every civilized guy on earth. We're given some decent tasting tap water and a basket filled with a prosciutto stuffed bread. The Nephew orders a Montepulciano that's earthy and strong while I bogart the bread basket.

We start with grilled octopus. Long sexy lengths of tentacled brilliance tasting more like July than January. Green hunks of Broccoli di Rape, all garlicky with squeezed lemon, join the fork with the octopus. Granted, an Umbrian white would have been my choice but at this point I really don't care, keep my mouth shut and happily drink my red.

Unrushed, the three of us polish off the appetizers and wine. It's here some mention of my discipline must be made. Had I any, I would happily have ended dinner at this point. However, I didn't and three entrees came out and were served so we could share. Two pastas, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca and Tagliatelle alla Bolognese along with a pounded and breaded veal. All of it consumed with a lighter Primitivo from Puglia.

I have a friend from Chicago who told me, "The food's not very good at the Cheesecake Factory but there's lots of it." Just mentioning Cheesecake Factory here should be completely horrifying to every civilized guy reading this but... I do it to make a point. Ballato has that something indescribable and that's so damned hard to fake. Along with the perfect pasta... the veal... was average. Just okay. But who cares. Everything about Ballato was magical.

The three of us huddled in the back of a cab for the long ride up Broadway. The Nephew and GF chatted of work and rents and NYC challenges while I looked out the window and thought of how everything in this city comes at such a high price. The price of living, working and fighting for every scrap. It ain't easy, but I've never seen so much magic anywhere else. As far as values go -- Emilio Ballato's magic comes at a small price. Even more so if your nephew pays and... you can skip the pasta. I've said this many times before and I'll say it again, I may not be able to smoke, drink or screw much longer -- But you gotta eat and there's no city in the world I'd rather do it in.


Smitty said...

Love the atmosphere. I could bury an afternoon there. You know, you roll in for lunch and ride it to 4pm. I will remember it, thanks.

Oyster Guy said...

Spot on. There is always something special to winter's light, especially when reflected off a fresh blanket of snow. Makes my heart sing. The resto looks great, high ceilings make that room work. I hope they serve Blue there, eh. :}

Julia said...

A New York post about magical "nothing," just like Seinfeld's New York. Except now it's 2013 we're moody and older, and Kramer and Elaine might be a little too noisy now. Love your writing, Tintin.

Jeff P. said...

Excellent, I shall be there soon...

tintin said...

Smitty- I think I'd like to do a lunch to dinner here.

Oyster- if I remember Alberta, it didn't get dark unti midnight & the sun rose at 3am. Lots of light.

Julia- I had a writing instructor who told me I was a gentile Woody Allen.

Jeff- We should try it for lunch. Sorry about your buddy.

Brummagem Joe said...

I seem to remember taking my son for a meal here years ago when he was a starving law student. Perhaps time to revisit. And did I detect from a comment on another thread that you're leaving the insurance business Tintin?

tintin said...

Joe- not sure it's up to your standards but it surpasses mine. Yes, the insurance career is no more. I'm hoping for a new opportunity as reception manager in the sallyport of Walmart. Wish me luck.

Anonymous said...

Add "write" to that list...nice piece,, tasty-

Brummagem Joe said...

"Wish me luck."

I really do old boy. Really. I kinda thought the insurance brokerage business was a bit like acting....you moved from one gig to the next with occasional rests between engagements! Let's hope yours is not too long. Best.

tintin said...

Zambo - I've just added 'tasty' to my list of annoying words.

Joe- Tomorrow never knows.

Paul in NoVA said...

I was about to add Ballato to my NYC Recs Tab on my Notes app on my phone (BTW, I still kinda miss the days when I carried a short green Memoranda notebook in my back pocket courtesy of the US Navy for these kinds of things) but it was already in there.

I cannot remember where I read about it but I definitely need to try it, perhaps even this Friday when I am in town solo. Location may be perfect after a cocktail at Pegu Club.