Whether inventing exotic dishes on "Iron Chef America," or devising menu favorites for one of his many restaurants, Mario Batali's recipes are bold without being fussy. Rarely seen without his unmistakable orange clogs and trademark shorts, the celebrity chef delights in serving simple, traditional Italian food. And if his commercial success is any indication, Batali has not only introduced new and authentic flavors to the U.S., but has also managed to please the American palette.
Batali pays homage to Italy with venues such as Otto, Lupa, and the ever-popular Babbo, but he and his business partner, Joe Bastianich, have also opened well received Spanish-style restaurants, such as Casa Mono.
Next fall, Batali will explore Spanish cuisine much differently in a new PBS Series "Spain ... On the Road Again." Accompanied by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols, Batali will travel around the country, sampling food and discovering local culture.
He comes from a family who loves to smoke their own ducks, and make their own jams. Everybody, Batali said, from his parents to his extended family, has always cooked.
"Our family still has olive-making contests. We taste everyone's pies. We find out who smoked the best duck this year," Batali said. "So, I was kind of lucky enough to start cooking in college, and realized that's really what I like to do."
But Batali was the only one of his family members who turned their hobby into a lucrative business.
He has been cooking professionally since his first year in college, when he graduated from dishwasher to stromboli maker at "Stuff Yer Face" in New Brunswick, N.J. He attended Rutgers University, but upon discovering that there were very few jobs for "Theatre of the Golden Age" majors, he decided to follow a different path. Batali moved to London and studied at the Cordon Bleu, eventually worked for the Four Seasons Hotels, and then moved to Italy.
After three years of intense training in the tiny northern Italian village of Borgo Capanne, he returned to the U.S., met the woman who was to become his wife, Susi Cahn, and opened his first restaurant in 1993.
Italian traditions were always a part of Batali's life. His grandmother is from a town called Amatrice, in the Abruzzo region near Rome.
"One of the strangest and greatest things about living in an Italian-American family is when grandma would come over for Sunday supper ... to make it," Batali said. "And when my childhood friends first discovered that some of her greatest recipes included brains and oxtails, it was very suspicious. But once you've ever had my grandmother's ravioli with Swiss chard and calf's brains, sauced with an oxtail ragu, and the kids found out it was good ... when grandma pulled up, they would help unload the car."
The Italian tradition of serving a meal in courses, and taking time to honor and savor the food, took some getting used to. After the ravioli, the roasted meats would arrive. And then the salads.