Dinner at Emilio Ballato’s on Houston reminds John Tinseth why he lives in such an expensive city.
Cab drivers love this weather. Bitter cold but bright without snow or ice. A wind comes around a corner and slaps me in my face and wallet. Easily walked blocks a couple weeks ago turn into, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I hail a cab, jump in and tell the driver, “It’s just a few blocks but I’ll make it worth your while.”I learned to take the good with the bad in this weather after 20 years in Chicago. It didn’t matter how warm you dressed, it was gonna hurt. Brain freeze headaches. Frost bitten ears. Toes and fingers, despite the cashmere, feeling like they were falling off one by one…But the city is beautiful in this bright Arctic light. Buildings look taller – harder – steadier. Unlike Summer’s undulating heat mixing with hot dog water from a cart and a smell coming up from a subway vent that’s so bad—you don’t wanna know what it is. You’ll walk the five blocks because you can. Heat is annoying but it’s not out to hunt you down and kill like Winter.
Soft living in southern places didn’t prepare me for Chicago. Just before moving, a buddy looked at my gloves, “You’ll have to get rid of those.” “Why,” I asked, spreading my fine black leather fingers of lined Brooks Brothers cashmere. “Because,” he said, “Those are not Chicago gloves. They’re pussy East Coast gloves.” He was right.
I walked east on Houston and just before Mott there was a black wrought iron sign looking like something from Europe circa 1780. Severe and purposeful, it’s magic worked. Peaking my curiosity, I look at the building it’s attached to and see a restaurant window with fat gold script spelling out, “Emilio Ballato.”
There’s a picture from the ’60s over the menu with a recognizable Warhol in line behind an unrecognizable taller man with his back to the camera. A man stops next to me and tells me it’s a wonderful place and that I have to try it. He smiles and moves on, like he did his good dead for the day. I shout a thanks to his back and frame the photo of Warhol in my camera. I snap the pic and another man stops and tells me what a great place it is and adds that the man’s back belongs to Jimi Hendrix.
A minute later, as I peek between the letters and see a long room filled with picture frames and a thick air of years, a woman walks by and without stopping shouts, “It’s great.” New Yorkers are certainly food and restaurant proud, but this isn’t Atlanta or Denver where unsolicited advice to strangers on the street is considered normal and, y’all, friendly.’ “Purdy bad weather, huh? Well, you know what they say about Denver—If you don’t like the weather—just wait a few minutes…a ha ha ha…”
Despite having to hang up our own coats, there’s a warmness to Ballato I saw from outside. Narrow, but not too close. It’s honest looking. Nothing Olive Garden about it. In fact, just saying Olive Garden in this place should be completely horrifying to every civilized guy on earth. We’re given some decent tasting tap water and a basket filled with a prosciutto stuffed bread. The Nephew orders a Montepulciano that’s earthy and strong while I bogart the bread basket.
We start with grilled octopus. Long sexy lengths of tentacled brilliance tasting more like July than January. Green hunks of Broccoli di Rape, all garlicky with squeezed lemon, join the fork with the octopus. Granted, an Umbrian white would have been my choice but at this point I really don’t care, keep my mouth shut and happily drink my red.
Unrushed, the three of us polish off the appetizers and wine. It’s here some mention of my discipline must be made. Had I any, I would happily have ended dinner at this point. However, I didn’t and three entrees came out and were served so we could share. Two pastas, Spaghetti alla Puttanesca and Tagliatelle alla Bolognese along with a pounded and breaded veal. All of it consumed with a lighter Primitivo from Puglia.
I have a friend from Chicago who told me, “The food’s not very good at the Cheesecake Factory but there’s lots of it.” Just mentioning Cheesecake Factory here should be completely horrifying to every civilized guy reading this but… I do it to make a point. Ballato has that something indescribable and that’s so damned hard to fake. Along with the perfect pasta… the veal… was average. Just okay. But who cares. Everything about Ballato was magical.