Batali was born in 1960 and grew up outside Seattle: a suburban kid with a solid Leave It to Beaver upbringing. His mother, Marilyn, is En-glish and French Canadian - from her comes her son's flaming red hair and a fair, un-Italian complexion. The Italian is from his father, Armandino, the grandson of immigrants who arrived in the 1890s. When Mario was growing up, his father was a well-paid Boeing executive in charge of procuring airplane parts made overseas, and in 1975, after being posted to Europe, to supervise the manufacturing close-up, he moved his family to Spain.
That, according to Gina, Mario's youngest sibling, was when Mario changed. ("He was already pushing the limits.") Madrid, in the post-Franco years (bars with no minimum age, hash hangouts, the world's oldest profession suddenly legalized), was a place of exhilarating license, and Mario seems to have experienced a little bit of everything on offer. He was caught growing marijuana on the roof of his father's apartment building (the first incident of what would become a theme - Batali was later expelled from his dorm in college, suspected of dealing, and, later still, there was some trouble in Tijuana that actually landed him in jail). The marijuana association also evokes a memory of the first meals Batali remembers preparing, late-night panini with caramelized locally grown onions, a local cow's-milk Spanish cheese, and paper-thin slices of chorizo: "The best stoner munch you can imagine; me and my younger brother Dana were just classic stoner kids - we were so happy."
By the time Batali returned to the United States in 1978 to attend Rutgers University, in New Jersey, he was determined to get back to Europe ("I wanted to be a Spanish banker - I loved the idea of making a lot of money and living a luxurious life in Madrid"), and his unlikely double major was in business management and Spanish theatre. But after being thrown out of his dorm, Batali got work as a dishwasher at a pizzeria called Stuff Yer Face (in its name alone, destiny was calling), and his life changed. He was promoted to cook, then line cook (working at one "station" in a "line" of stations, making one thing), and then asked to be manager, an offer he turned down. He didn't want the responsibility; he was having too good a time.
The life at Stuff Yer Face was fast (twenty-five years later, he still claims he has the record for the most pizzas made in an hour), sexy ("The most booooootiful waitresses in town"), and very buzzy ("I don't want to come off as a big druggy, but when a guy comes into the kitchen with a pizza pan turned upside down, covered with lines of crack, how can you say no?"). When, in his junior year, he attended a career conference hosted by representatives from major corporations, Batali realized he had been wrong; he was never going to be a banker. He was going to be a chef.
"My mother and grandmother had always told me that I should be a cook. In fact, when I was preparing my applications for college, my mother had suggested cooking school. But I said, 'Ma, that's too gay. I don't want to go to cooking school - that's for fags.' " Five years later, Batali was back in Europe, attending the Cordon Bleu in London.