In the Name of the Fathers | Father's Day with Mario Batali
Mario Batali, the 37-year-old star of the Food Network's Molto Mario and Mediterranean Mario, has become so well-known that truck drivers now pull over to ask for his autograph and Seventies rock stars pack his New York City restaurant, Pó. ("All the bands I loved in 10th grade watch the Food Network," he explains.) But of all his achievements, he's proudest of his two baby boys--so proud that he's naming his brand-new Greenwich Village restaurant Babbo, which is Italian for daddy. "He's very, very pleased with himself," Mario's wife, Susi Cahn, says with a smile. He gets especially excited when his 20-month-old, Benno, picks up a pot and pretends to stir. "When Benno can start working in the kitchen," Mario predicts, "it'll be great free labor."
For Mario, food and fatherhood have always gone hand in hand. His own father, Armandino, worked as a quality-control specialist at Boeing in Seattle but would spend entire weekends cooking. "Our idea of a rainy-day event was making 200 pounds of sausage," Mario remembers. The men in Mario's family helped him learn the ins and outs of putting up food: his father, uncles and cousins hunted and butchered their own meat, cured their own olives and pickled their own vegetables. According to Armandino, "We made everything from scratch, whether it was pasta, antipasto or biscotti." ("Well, I'd bring home store-bought pasta sometimes," Mario's mother, Marilyn, admits.)
As a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Mario distinguished himself as one of the fastest stromboli makers at the local Stuff Your Face Pizza. Looking for more serious culinary accreditation, he enrolled at London's Le Cordon Bleu in 1984, then worked in a trattoria in northern Italy. "Cooking in Italy was the most important thing I've ever done," he says. "I learned what not to put on the plate." He found his way to New York City in 1992 and met Susi at a restaurant there soon after he arrived: he was celebrating his first day off from a new job, she was dropping off homegrown vegetables. He opened Pó in 1993.
When Mario married Susi, he gained a father-in-law, Miles Cahn, who is nearly as passionate about food as his own father is. Miles co-owns the Coach Dairy Goat Farm in Pine Plains, New York, with his wife, Lillian. As the man who put goat cheese on virtually every Manhattan restaurant menu--and the founder of Coach Leatherware--Miles was famous in his own right, but things changed after Mario came into the family. "Now I'm known as Mario's father-in-law," he laughs.
To celebrate Father's Day, the Batalis and the Cahns teamed up for an alfresco lunch at Coach Farm. Mario grilled endives with a pungent tarragon oil and tossed ziti with a peppery tomato-herb sauce. Armandino, who recently completed an intensive cooking school course in New York, made a skillful sous-chef. (Now he's scouting Seattle locations for an Italian artisanal butcher store and family-style restaurant.) As his contribution to the meal, Miles set out an assortment of fresh and aged Coach Farm goat cheeses.
Mario loves all the food on this menu, but it's the mixed grill--with spicy lamb chops, chicken sausages and balsamic-marinated Portobello mushrooms--that's closest to his heart. When he and his brother and sister were growing up, they would make a version of it almost every Father's Day. And mixed grill will be on the menu at Pó this Father's Day, as it is every year.