I’m waiting for Mario Batali at the bar at Otto Enoteca e Pizzeria—the more family friendly and casual of his restaurants. The bartender, Dennis, a bearded man with a shaved head and reading glasses, is accommodating without being effusive as he serves me a caffe macchiato. It’s two p.m. on a Monday; the restaurant is quiet and the wait staff is busy cleaning in preparation for the dinner rush.
Batali arrives wearing salmon cargo shorts, an orange-and-white striped button-down shirt, and his trademark orange crocs.
“So, what are we doing today?” he says. His steely gray eyes are unblinking. Not just a chef, not just a restaurateur, not just a cookbook author, or the jovial “Molto Mario,” or co-host of The Chew, Batali is a man who runs a culinary empire. And his schedule is packed.
“This is my home office, right here,” he says. “And my home kitchen until we became empty nesters since my sons went off to college—they would come down here and have cinnamon sugar pizzas. And they would order take-out from here with their high school buddies.” Batali warms when talking about his sons.
The Batali name has become ubiquitous with Italian cooking. He has had 10 cookbooks published—mostly Italian, with one on Spanish food. Batali’s Big American Cookbook (Grand Central Life & Style, Oct.) is his third on American cuisine, if you count his Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style cookbook.
Why would Batali—responsible in part for reintroducing Italian cuisine to America—want to deviate from what he knows best?
“I’ve always been excited about American food,” he says. “And I grew up in Washington State. I’ve been just as excited to eat in Iowa, say, as I have in Umbria, provided there is an authenticity to the food. And especially when what you’re eating is not something you can get just anywhere. For example, when you get an Iowa loose meat sandwich, the way the cheese melts when you do it right is not gastronomically mind-blowing but it’s so delicious—and speaks to me as something that is so Americana. And that’s how I feel about the recipes in Big American Cookbook.”
Some of the entries are recipes from Batali’s family such as a tourtiere that his French Canadian grandfather would make around Christmastime. “It’s the cookie spices [cinnamon, allspice, and clove] and the savory meat that makes it so right,” he says about the traditional Quebecois pork pie.
But most of the recipes in the book were collected while he was traveling—whether on vacation or on book tours.
“I would always ask the bookstore owner where the teacher or the average person would go to eat at least once a month, and go there. I would look in the Elks Club and the Rotary Club for cookbooks or recipes, and I wouldn’t Mario-ize them but I might add some chopped jalapeños. I write down recipes wherever I go,” he says.
“For this book I’d send 1000 pages of recipes to [co-author] Jim Webster in my handwritten script and he’ll type them, and then we’ll figure out what they’re doing. Before we even test one we’ll sit down, talk about them, and see how they work.”
Jim Webster is the co-author he met in 2008, when Webster, then a copyeditor for the St. Petersburg Times, won Mario Batali's Ultimate Grilling Challenge, which was associated with the publication of Batali’s Italian Grill cookbook. “I feel like I won it on the name more than anything else,” Webster tells me over the phone. “Pig-wrapped, pig-stuffed pig.”
Webster and his wife would eventually join Batali to help at events for the Mario Batali Foundation—a hunger and literacy program. Batali then invited Webster, now a copyeditor at the Washington Post, to work on his 2014 cookbook America—Farm to Table: Simple, Delicious Recipes Celebrating Local Farmers.
For research on Big American Cookbook, Webster would go to libraries, thrift stores, and community bookstores and look for “those spiral-bound cookbooks. I used those for research even more than the Internet.”
In the book’s introduction Batali writes, “What fascinates me most about the regional recipes in these United States is the powerful ethnicity unique to the various parts of the country.”
As a student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., Batali came across all kinds of ethnic food in New Jersey, including the tomato pie in Trenton. “The tomato pie is a dish from the U.S. that may not exist in Italy. It’s an idea that immigrants brought over from Italy, and made better here.”
Wherever he would go, Batali says, people would point out the local specialties, such as the runza in Nebraska—a hand pie brought over by Eastern Europeans in the mid 1800s, and made of basic dough and stuffed with beef and onion and sometimes cabbage. “When I heard about it, I thought ‘what the hell is this and how can I have it?!’”
Batali orders a plate of bruschetta, topped with a creamy puree of fava beans and potatoes and hint of mint and chili pepper. He has a sharp eye for everything; when my sleeve comes a little too close to the food, he quietly says, “Look out there.” He explains that “My Italian cookbooks were more or less based on restaurant cooking. They were unapologetically prep heavy and chop specific. This one is more for the home cook—stuff that’s easier to shop for. You can find almost any of these ingredients in any store.”
In writing this book he recalled the Silver Palate cookbook. “I remember picking up that book and looking at the recipes when I was younger and thinking, ‘I can kill that.’”
And for nearly the last 20 years, Batali has been writing his own cookbooks.
“Writing cookbooks is a real relaxing time. And I do most of my writing on planes,” Batali says. “Writing is an absolutely different part of my day. I enjoy the process. To write those recipes down and analyze my process, makes me a better cook. In the same way that when I’m driving down the highway, I add up the numbers of every license plate I see. My mind runs that way. So when I put together a recipe I automatically think—two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, three cloves of garlic, put those in a pan, sauté, add three cups of corn, sauté until light golden brown….”
But these days, he’s no longer regularly in his kitchens. I ask what he misses about it.
“Well, I no longer have to clean up,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s the sweatiness that I miss,” he adds after a pause. “Because you’re kind of humping in there. No matter how much you dislike the person you are standing next to, you put that aside during the dinner rush because you need each other. And at the end of the night you sit down and have Chinese soup container full of cold beer. It’s that feeling you have when you come up against and vanquish Goliath. You can feel giddily satisfied about your performance.”