Food

$27 spaghetti? It's Batali's appetite for risk

This is not what celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, along with her restaurateur son, expected when they opened Del Posto, New York's latest culinary hotspot.

There have been mixed reviews, carping about high prices and a nasty dispute with the landlord.

"Overbuilt, over-hyped — and at risk of just being plain over," The New York Post wrote this week about Del Posto and a neighboring restaurant of equal fame, Morimoto. The paper concluded the "two places opened badly out of tune."

The problems Del Posto has endured since it opened in December underscore just how unforgiving the restaurant business can be — even for Batali and Bastianich, two of TV's best-known chefs and most successful restaurateurs.

For Batali, Bastianich and her son, Joseph, Del Posto is one of the biggest bets of their careers, a nearly $12 million gamble on what could be the most ambitious Italian restaurant in the country.

"I'm not going to tell anybody, but of course I'm worried," Batali said in an interview. "I'm working every hour of every day. This is my main event."

Batali, known for his flowing red hair and orange clogs, is a star on the cable television Food Network, where he hosts two popular shows. He and Joseph Bastianich have created such New York City restaurants as Babbo, Lupa and Otto that put a contemporary twist on Old World food at relatively reasonable prices.

Lidia Bastianich has achieved fame through her New York restaurants and popular cookbooks and as the host of public television's "Lidia's Family Table." The matriarch of Italian cooking in America, she has also branched out, bringing her traditional Italian cucina to Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

With their collective cachet, the triumvirate figured they could create an unparalleled menu in an unmatched setting of marble and mahogany.

The elegant Del Posto seats fewer than 200 people in a huge space, 26,000 square feet. Dinner is an hours-long event. The prices match the refined atmosphere: $24 Chinese tea, $27 spaghetti and $29 valet parking. A rack of veal runs $240.

"This is what we think is missing in New York City," Batali said. "A luxurious and comfortable Italian restaurant expressing everything we know about Italian culture in a slightly rarefied atmosphere. The food is to be elegant and simple without losing the essential heart of the Italian purity."

Lease troubles
While critics have taken shots at Del Posto's aesthetics and prices, the food has garnered plenty of praise. Still, there are those who feel Del Posto has not lived up to its billing as a possible four-star restaurant. "To these taste buds, it has a ways to go," wrote one reviewer.

Batali and his partners were able to afford the luxurious decor because they settled for a relatively cheap location on Manhattan's far west side. In April 2004, Del Posto agreed to pay $130,000 a year for the first five years.

But Joseph Bastianich contends the landlord, Somerset Partners, is threatening to evict Del Posto now that high-paying tenants have come along.

"It's a shakedown," Bastianich charged.

Somerset's lawyer, Warren Estis, said that while completing the restaurant, Del Posto violated its lease by placing equipment and machinery in the basement. Del Posto says that it had an oral agreement with the previous owner of the building to use the basement space, and that the landlord's demand to remove the equipment — which includes the boiler — would close the restaurant for 2 1/2 months and cost more than $500,000.

"It's a 25-year lease and we're not going anywhere," Bastianich said. "Ultimately, if the court decides we have to move our boiler, we'll move our boiler."

Batali said he wishes he could just focus on the food: "I'd rather be making chicken stock."

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