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Molto Joe | Joe Bastianich

Joe Bastianich isn't in the limelight like his business partner, TV's "Molto Mario" Batali, but he's a wine superstar. Wine Editor Lettie Teague trails him from Manhattan to Queens to Italy.

I may have found the luckiest man in the world. His name is Joe Bastianich. He's the son of Lidia Bastianich, the public-television star (Lidia's Family Table), the partner of celebrity chef Mario Batali (who made molto a household word) and a friend of R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe (he's even accompanied the band on tour). But Joe has more than just famous connections: At 35, he co-owns six successful restaurants in New York and an iconic wine shop, Italian Wine Merchants. He's cofounded two wineries in Italy and coauthored a best-selling wine book. He's married to a beautiful woman, and they have three—soon to be four—children. How did one man accumulate so much good fortune in such a short time?

In a search for the answer, I ended up spending almost a week with Joe: in Manhattan and Queens—we even went to Italy together. And while I got to know Joe a bit, I learned even more about the nature of luck.

The best way to get to know him, Joe said when I first phoned, was to accompany him on a typical day. And so I found myself at 10 in the morning eavesdropping on Joe's meeting with Caroline Jackson, the manager of The Spotted Pig. This new restaurant has been wildly popular since it opened four months ago, possibly in part because it's a project of the "fabulous Babbo boys," as one local critic has dubbed Joe and Mario; the two men, who own Babbo restaurant, are investors in The Pig.

Joe and Caroline were having breakfast when I arrived. In Joe's case this meant a croissant, plus a baguette so big it extended six inches over both sides of the plate. "I've been up since six o'clock with my kids," Joe explained, pushing his orange scarf out of the way, the better to get at his baguette. I admired the scarf. "Orange is the new black," said Joe. (He was better dressed than I was, so I guessed he should know.)

Joe and Caroline were reviewing The Pig's wine selections. "We're here to come up with a more appropriate list," Joe said to me. "Quilceda Creek Cabernet for $165? Whose brilliant idea was that for a gastropub?" he asked. (A gastropub is a quasi-English pub that actually serves serious food.) Joe offered a diagnosis: "The problem with this list is that everyone has a friend they want to buy wine from—and it reflects that." Joe is an expert diagnostician of wine lists; he's been creating them since he was 23, when he opened his first restaurant, Becco, in Manhattan. Indeed, the Becco list Joe created in 1991 was considered revolutionary at the time; it had 130 wines, many from obscure Italian wineries, each $15 a bottle. (The price has since gone up to $20.) "I wanted people to drink wine," he said.

"Wine pricing," Joe continued, warming to the subject, "is an art—like painting." I pictured him choosing between a Tocai and a Chardonnay before applying his selection to the blank canvas of...a word processing file. Why was Joe spending so much time with The Pig's wine list, which wasn't even his? "I just like fixing things," he replied.

Much of Joe's conversation was punctuated by the ring of his cell phone, which as often as not he answered in Italian. One call was from his wine-label designer. "She's a contessa from Tuscany, and I have to call her 16 times to have one conversation, because she's always on a boat somewhere," Joe explained, sounding more impressed than annoyed. Then he snapped his phone shut.

I followed Joe to an enormous black SUV. This was his "office"—though we wouldn't be in it for much of the day, as I soon discovered. Our next stop was the location of his new restaurant, Il Posto, slated to open sometime next year. Joe had to have a look at the space. Il Posto, at Tenth Avenue and 16th Street, will be the first restaurant owned by Joe, Lidia and Mario, featuring what Joe called "transgenerational Italian cuisine." They'd chosen the location, said Joe, because "it's not entrenched in hotness." He added, "I don't like restaurants that are hot." With a month-long wait for a dinner reservation at Babbo, who was he kidding? "Il Posto will be easier to get into," Joe maintained. He seemed genuinely pained by such frustrated diners. "We'll even do valet parking." (Especially, it seemed, frustrated diners with cars).

Valet parking? That sounded pretty suburban. "It won't be suburban," said Joe, who lives in the suburbs in Connecticut and grew up in Bayside, Queens—which is technically part of New York City but looks a lot like the suburbs. Joe's parents, Lidia and Felice, came to Queens in the late 1950s from Istria (once part of Italy, now part of Croatia and Slovenia). They opened their first restaurant, Buonavia, in Forest Hills in 1971, and followed with another Queens location, in Fresh Meadows, several years later.

Lidia and Felice didn't tackle Manhattan until 1981, when they opened their acclaimed restaurant Felidia. (The location, near the East River on 58th Street, is as close to Queens as a Manhattan restaurant could be.) Today Lidia runs Felidia alone; she and Felice divorced six years ago. But like Joe, Lidia has many other projects— not only her cooking show, but also a line of pasta sauces and a company specializing in travel to Italy.

Joe launched his career at his parents' restaurants, though his official biography mentions a short stint on Wall Street—which Joe said he did because "it seemed like a reasonable way to make a living." But Joe didn't want to talk about this; he was making another call, this time to get directions to an office where he had to drop off wine samples. Didn't Joe have sales people? "I like selling my wine," he replied, though, he admitted, "I don't deal well with rejection."

On the way to lunch we picked up Babbo wine director David Lynch (Joe's coauthor for Vino Italiano). David and Joe were at Boston College together, or as David said, "I knew Joe before he was a mogul." Lunch, however, wasn't a social occasion: Three Italian wine salesmen in dark suits and identical haircuts were awaiting us. "My Italian distributors," said Joe. Midway through the meal, Lidia showed up too—also wearing orange. (Had one of Joe's calls been a conference about color?) "I just finished taping my show," she said with a smile. Lidia's show is filmed at her house in Queens, and Joe makes occasional appearances. On one episode he looked like he'd just come into the kitchen for a snack; on another, Lidia introduced him as "my son, the successful restaurateur" and asked him why he was in the business. "Because I was too old for a paper route," was Joe's deadpan reply.

After lunch came the Babbo managers' meeting, at which Joe fielded questions on subjects ranging from gift certificates to a rude hostess to winemaker dinners, punctuating advice with telephone calls. Joe took obvious pride in discussing Babbo's wine program. "We've put together a cellar worth well over $1 million. I don't think there's a restaurant group that puts more time and effort into its wine program than us," he said.

The wine list at Babbo is exhaustive, though a novice wine drinker might also call it exhausting. Not only is every Barolo producer of note—like Giacosa, Conterno, Mascarello—represented on its pages (often by multiple vintages and bottle sizes), but so are Super-Tuscans and important reds from lesser-known regions like Emilia-Romagna. There are many whites, too, including Friulian wines and obscure varietals such as Erbaluce, from Piedmont.

Soon enough we were back in Joe's car, on our way to Becco, his theater-district restaurant. Joe needed to check out the town house next door, which he was renovating. But word had apparently gotten out that he would be there, and people were lined up to talk to him. It was 5:30, but Joe said he had four stops to go. He invited me along with the casual aside, "I'm usually home by 9 p.m.—or 1 in the morning."

I decided I'd be better off doing some research outside of Joe's car. I began by talking with Mario. How had he and Joe met? "Lidia was organizing a James Beard Foundation awards dinner for journalists; Joe was in charge of the wine, and I was one of the chefs," Mario recalled. Apparently it was, if not love at first sight, then at least like-mindedness. Though he is now the more famous partner, Mario said, "it's not like I do everything and Joe paints." (What was it with these guys and painting?) "Joe has achieved a great deal of success in his own right," Mario continued. "He's contributed a lot to wine service in this town." And, he added, as almost an afterthought, "Joe is a very secure man."

According to David Lynch, Joe had always been thus, even in college. "Joe always projected strength,"David said, adding a touch wistfully, "I would give my right arm to have a fraction of his confidence." Where had Joe developed this self-assurance? Had it been in Queens? I called Joe to suggest a trip there.

The day of our Queens journey was quite warm; Joe was wearing a purple checked shirt that said "Italian designer" more than it did "outer borough." Joe turned his car toward Astoria. "I thought you grew up in Bayside," I remarked. "Astoria is where I was born," Joe replied. "We moved to Bayside when I was six." Joe drove under the elevated subway tracks. "That's the apartment where I was born," he said, pointing. "There used to be oily black dust all over everything when we opened the windows," he added cheerfully.

Joe had decided we should have lunch at Ponticello, a local spot owned by two former waiters at his parents' Forest Hills restaurant. Luigi greeted Joe like family and ushered us into the crowded dining room, which was full of businessmen conducting whatever business is conducted at lunch in Astoria. "Liquor salesmen," Joe pronounced.

"Tell me about your family," I prompted. "I was brought up to believe I could achieve anything," Joe began. "My mother instilled in me the belief that there was always something great coming." He leaned forward and looked me in the eye. "For example, even though I'm afraid of flying, I always think the plane can't crash because there are so many better things still to come," he added. "That's why I always think the plane will crash," I replied. But Joe didn't seem interested in pursuing this thread. He checked his cell phone instead, which I realized hadn't rung in two hours. No reception in Queens? "I turned it off," Joe replied.

Back in Manhattan, Joe turned his phone on and made a few calls. He also put an opera CD on the car stereo. Joe had been singing with an opera coach, a former waiter at Becco, for over three years. How was he doing? "I'm a baritone. Baritones don't mature until late," came his noncommittal reply, possibly the first less-than-completely-confident thing I'd heard him say.

After our outing, I realized that while Joe and I had talked about wine, we hadn't tasted any. And wine was what he cared about most. The year before opening Becco, Joe worked in vineyards all over Italy. It had been his idea to start a winery in Friuli, a region not far from his parents' ancestral home. Perhaps, I thought, Joe and I should fly to Friuli to see his winery, Bastianich. Joe was ahead of me; he already had plans to go there on business.

Joe and I were met at the Venice airport (about an hour south of Friuli) by Valter Scarbolo, Joe's winery manager and close friend. Valter, who looks like a young Paul Newman, has a winery as well as a restaurant, La Frasca—the social hub of Friuli. "I wouldn't have been able to do anything here without Valter," Joe said.

Valter drove us straight to La Frasca; he and Joe had an appointment there with a real estate agent hoping to sell an attractive though problematic winery. A clause in the contract stipulated that the owner's relatives—the local drunk and his mother—be allowed to remain on the property.

While waiting for the agent to arrive, we had a tasting of both Valter's and Joe's wines. (Not a moment is wasted in Friuli.) Valter's Tocai and Pinot Grigio were quite pleasant, but I was most impressed with his Chardonnay, which had a mineral quality that reminded me of a good Mâconnais. We also tasted the 2002 Bastianich Vespa Bianco, Joe's flagship white. Vespa has been awarded the rating Tre Bicchieri (or three glasses)—the highest honor a wine can receive from the publishers of the Italian magazine Gambero Rosso—for three years in a row. Joe's consulting winemaker, Maurizio Castelli, later told me that Vespa, a big, rich white wine half aged in new wood, was "exactly a portrait of Joe."

Vespa is one of what Joe calls "Super-Whites," the blends that command the most respect in Friuli. Vintage Tunina, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and local grapes, was the first of these, made by producer Silvio Jermann, who, along with Livio Felluga, is among Friuli's most famous winemakers. It's also the one best known in the States. "Vintage Tunina is Babbo's best-selling white wine over $75," said Joe.

The Super-Whites from Friuli are quite different from the whites of other Italian regions, beginning with the fact that they're blended. The grape varieties generally include Tocai (Friuli's most famous grape), Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

One of Joe's missions is to educate Americans about Super-Whites, he said to me the next day, driving out to his winery to barrel-taste the new wines. (We had already spent the morning walking over the land that Joe had just purchased and was about to plant; Joe in Italy was certainly no more leisure-minded than Joe in New York.) Most Americans don't understand the idea of a premium white blend, he claimed.

Joe's winemaker and vineyard manager were waiting when we arrived. Joe wanted to taste all the components of Vespa—Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Picolit—as well as barrel samples of his single-varietal whites, most notably the Tocai he calls Tocai Plus, because of a small addition of late-harvest grapes for richness. And although reds aren't usually associated with Friuli, Joe makes two, Vespa Rosso and the impressive Calabrone (the 1999 vintage is especially fine).

While the white blends from Friuli may be difficult for Americans to fathom, the Friulian landscape probably presents even more of a challenge. Though it's located in the foothills of the Alps, Friuli lacks the beauty of, say, Tuscany (not to mention the tourists), and while its hills are lovely and covered with vines, the valley itself is an industrial scene full of chair-manufacturing plants. Friuli happens to make more chairs than anywhere else in the world; in fact, Joe and Valter drove me past an enormous chair that was erected as a monument in the town of Manzano. It seemed somehow appropriate that a pragmatic fellow like Joe should make his wine in such a no-nonsense setting.

After our farewell lunch, Valter and Joe sat drawing pictures of their next business idea: wine-storage units made of wood. "We're trying to figure out how to use Friuli's chair-manufacturing plants," Joe explained. They were still talking about it when we said our good-byes. Joe, who was staying in Italy another week, called to me as I got into the car, "Now I have to get to work. I haven't gotten much done while you were here."

That, I realized, was the secret of Joe's luck. It wasn't his famous friends or his family or even his self-confidence. He simply works harder than anyone else. It reminded me of one of my father's favorite sayings, the one my sister and I always hated hearing since it invariably heralded additional chores: "The harder I work, the luckier I get." Too bad, I thought, that my father never had a son named Joe.

Published July 2004
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