Forget the Titanic. Boarding any shakedown cruise is as treacherous as eating razor clams right out of the Mediterranean. So how come throngs gleefully barrel into just-opened restaurants expecting to be greeted and coddled as if they had a boat slip on Dawson's Creek? No matter how effusive the hype, a restaurant's first two months routinely play like a student variety show after two rehearsals. At the beginning of Cafeteria's third week, the hostess left us in the care of a waiter who proudly said that he hadn't tasted any dishes on the menu but they sure looked good. On a scorching June night during Bottino's first month, with the air-conditioning kaput (it works fine now), the waiter dripped and giggled that he couldn't remember which two things they were out of. He did eventually -- twenty minutes after we'd ordered them. And at Oona, where the menu is still in flux, the waitress raved on about the pastry chef's most recent inspiration -- caramelized pear with a Gorgonzola mousse, in mint oil and a Sauternes granita. We took the bait, and it turned out to be something Monica's mom might bring over to Linda Tripp's for a pot-luck dinner. Even worse.
With so many other estimable and experienced joints available, why does anyone subject himself to such guinea-pigness? The reason is that we all dream of being the first to eat at a place like Babbo, open just six weeks, located in the aristocratic two-tiered space on Waverly Place that formerly housed the renowned but readily forgotten Coach House. Like Michael Johnson at the track, Babbo has leapt over all the requisite hurdles, triumphing with astonishing grace in record time.
The Coach House's incredibly steep, brass-railed staircase is still dead-center, but it now unites two serenely uncomplicated rooms suffused in gratifyingly honeyed light. The genuinely obliging staff -- who have not only tasted everything but are so well-versed about each selection that they could probably pick up a sauté pan in a pinch -- glide up, down, and around both floors with the unfaltering rhythm of Lawrence Welk's Champagne dancers. Restaurants rare as this radiate their own infectious energy. From the moment you open the door, Babbo smells like a winner.
Much of the credit for this bewitching pungency goes to chef Mario Batali, who has crafted a daringly original and startlingly airy Italian menu. At Pó, his bustling, vest-pocket café on Cornelia Street, Batali built a reputation on zealously rustic Italian cooking: dense barley risottos, an earthy beef ragout on saffron tagliatelle.
But nothing he has served before -- in fact, little you have eaten before -- will prepare you for the menu at Babbo. What ultimately makes it so dizzily fulfilling is that the unexpected ingredients (smoked sable as Italian food?) never succumb to cuteness but rather expand the boundaries of a cuisine and of our desires. Delicately folded goat-cheese tortelloni, almost floating above the fork, are enveloped in a wondrous coating of dried orange and rarely used wild-fennel pollen. The pollen is barely there, it's hardly more than the aroma of licorice, but it's all that is needed.
The sable, tateleh, is wonderful, its musky brashness savvily accompanied by a salad of grapefruit and orange in a saffron vinaigrette. Gleaming anchovies, slender and elegant, are escorted by soft summer beans. Little pasta "love letters," romanced by a bright paste of sweet peas and mint, are carried off by a seductively spicy lamb sausage. The briny sharpness of braised artichokes with mizuna leaves squares off against soothing goat cheese and roasted peppers, resolving into a delicious truce. The bread is awfully good, and you'll need extra to soak up the corn-and-basil broth that enhances steamed cockles. Buoyant gnocchi are brought down to earth by porcini mushrooms and a translucent but keenly flavored prosciutto. An even more velvety prosciutto comes close to lascivious as it slides across your tongue; the accompanying sweet-fig-oil fettunta will delectably if unfortunately bring you back to your senses. But a taste of cubanelle, a poblano chili stuffed with cheese, caponata, and peppers, will help you take leave all over again.
Batali even makes the often shunned desirable. Testa, jeweled by pickled shallots and mustard seed, is warmed on a plate until it coats the well in a vivid paper-thin terrazzo. Don't tell anyone it's head cheese, and watch it get sopped up quicker than the remains of the pappardelle Bolognese -- and that's no mean feat, because the meat sauce is superb. As for lamb's tongue, play dumb one more time and you may discover that ignorance, when mixed in a rosemary vinaigrette with pancetta and horseradish, can be bliss. However, like Patty Duke when paired with her identical English "cousin," Batali's linguine and clams will make you lose your mind. Made with pancetta and hot chilies, his broth is a blast in every way. Before the end of this year, expect to see as many knock-offs of this dish as there were of the slip dress.
Oh, yeah, there are entrées too. A superb rib-eye dry-rubbed with black- and red-pepper flakes, sugar, and thyme. A better branzino than you'll find anywhere in Milan. Thick, dense, bone-gnawing lamb chops, fragrant with lemon balm, braced by the bite of rapini. Calamari sautéed in a vibrant, peppery "Sicilian Lifeguard" tomato sauce. Huge, sloppily succulent grilled vermilion soft-shell crabs on a bed of scarlet runners. And simply irresistible grilled guinea hen with charred sweet corn. Only a barbecued squab and a mustard-crusted tuna failed to sustain the rapturous high. In most other fledgling restaurants, they'd probably be standouts.
Every dessert, however, will make you stupid with happiness. A bright lemon-ricotta cake with glistening garnetlike blackberries. A super pairing of pistachio and chocolate in a semifreddo. If you want to eat chocolate-hazelnut cake by yourself, you'll have to have it delivered to the bathroom and lock the door. If you miss Mom's cherry pie, the crackling cherry crostata will make you want to call her. But the saffron panna cotta is the essence of Babbo. A glistening, opalescent orb, it seems so ethereal -- until it suddenly explodes on the tongue.
That Babbo has been able to combine the elements of surprise, comfort, delight, and equilibrium throughout its operation in the time it takes other restaurants to decide how to fold their napkins will only encourage those who keep feverishly racing toward the next best thing to step up the pace. If they're smart, however, they'll realize they've already crossed the finish line. This is as good as it gets.
Babbo, 110 Waverly Place (777-0303). Dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards.