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.
Cooking Runs in the Family
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.
"We remembered thinking: she's off her rocker. To further add to her being off her rocker, when dinner was over, and there was still red wine in her glass, she would take her biscotti, or 'her cookies,' as we called them then, and start dipping them in her wine, and that was just enough to knock the kids right out of their chairs. 'She's putting cookies in her wine? She's out of her mind!' Of course, now all of it, including the salad after the main course, makes absolute sense. And that's, of course, how we live our lives now!" Batali said.
Cooking Tips and Favorite Ingredients
According to Batali, the trick to becoming a better cook is to try to eliminate the "white noise" surrounding a complicated recipe. He suggests establishing two or three basic recipes in your repertoire. One example might be spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and then adding additional ingredients, such as clams.
"But the real tenet of great Italian food is: less is more," Batali said. "It's really about the balance and simplicity of a dish, more than some giant conglomeration of a huge multi-step menu."
One of his favorite ingredients is bottara, the caviar of tuna and mullet. After it is rubbed in salt, cured and hung to dry in the sun, the hardened, slightly orange end product is grated over food, yielding the essence of the sea: foam and wind.
He's also quite fond of pork.
"Having lived in Amelia Romana, I grew very fond of the entire operation of the animal we call the pig," Batali said. "We make a sausage out of most of the shoulder, and a little bit of the back leg, with a little bit of the back fat, which is called lardo. Which is exactly what it sounds like — delightful, creamy, white, fatty meat that tastes very much what the pig was hoping to taste like. We grind that up, and we cook it with a little bit of Swiss chard and rigatoni, finish the dish with a little bit of parmigiano reggiano, and you've pretty much captured the triumvirate of greatness of the city of Bologna," he said.
With characteristic humor, he said that his favorite food is "anything anyone else makes." After all, he explained, once you shuck six oysters, you've had enough. But the one meal he can't live without is quite simple to prepare: extra virgin olive oil, anchovies, bread crumbs and pasta.
Batali is the poster child of celebrity chefs, with several TV shows under his belt, 12 restaurants, and cookbooks galore. Food isn't just a business, however. He feels it is what brings families together.
"It ties culture to the human, and it's what makes people really understand what relaxing and what life can be. I've stumbled across my theory in the last two years, that really all discord in the human race is based on two things," Batali said.
"You either need a nap, or you're hungry. And if I can provide half that, by giving you just a little something to eat, which will relax people and make them more likely to behave as a group happily ... I've done my job."