The Batalis, keeping it real here and in N.Y.C.

CELEBRITY CHEF Mario Batali was in town last week. In theory, he was here to plug his latest cookbook, something America's best-known TV chef (apart from the omnipresent Emeril Lagasse) could have done perfectly well with a brief appearance on Seattle Cooks! and a two-hour book signing at Elliott Bay. Instead, the 42-year-old proprietor of some of New York's most wildly successful restaurants came in under the publicity radar and spent most of his time here in a tiny, underequipped kitchen getting ready to serve lunch to 300 or so strangers. Strangers to him, that is. Everybody in the elbow-to-elbow crowd packing the Pioneer Square sandwich-and-salami shop Salumi had heard about the event by word of mouth, not press release; no wonder, because many of those present were on first-name terms with Salumi's proprietor, Mario Batali's father, Armandino. Before the four-shift, six-hour buffet and book signing was over, Batali junior had moved 240 copies of his $40 Babbo Cookbook. But considering that a copy of the book was included in the $56 price of an event that featured rhubarb Bellini cocktails, free-run red wine, four whole salmon, and unlimited portions of five more dishes from recipes in the book, making a profit was clearly not uppermost in the minds of either generation. Anyone who's read the text between the recipes in Batali's three books knows that he's a passionate advocate for straightforward, unfussy cooking using the very finest fresh, seasonal ingredients. If you've watched Batali's Food Network cooking show Molto Mario! you know he's a virtuoso of the cutting board and saut頰an, while his survey of Italy's great food-producing regions on Mario Eats Italy shows that his food knowledge is as great as his kitchen skills. What I didn't understand until I watched Batali working the crowd last Wednesday is how the man managed to go from unknown chef of a 34-seat Greenwich Village trattoria to co-owner of a $15 million a year restaurant empire in just six years. Food is Batali's medium; "family" is his message. FOOD AND FAMILY have long been intertwined for the Batalis, who come from immigrants who farmed in the Yakima Valley and link up on the female side to the Merlinos, early importers of Italian food products to the area. Cooking was already a familywide interest while Mario was growing up in Federal Way. When Armandino was offered a job supervising Boeing plane deliveries to European clients, wife Marilyn (an R.N.) and all three kids went with him. By the time Mario returned to the U.S. to attend Rutgers University in New Jersey, he was already, compared to a typical American his age, a raving food sophisticate. When Batali announced to his parents that he wanted to be a chef, instead of resistance he met encouragement. After a few years working his way up the U.S. restaurant ladder, he decided he needed to learn traditional Italian cooking from the ground up; his father's European contacts led him to an apprenticeship in a tiny restaurant in central Italy and his second "family," the Valdiserris. He ended up spending almost three years with them, mastering food Italian-style from rolling the daily pasta with the lady of the house to truffle hunting with Grandpa. Batali is a man of relentless energy, but energy alone doesn't earn a chef a place all but overnight at the top of the New York restaurant scene. Luck helped—and a couple more families. One was the Cahns. Miles Cahn retired as head of Coach Leathers to run a little goat ranch up the Hudson River and turned it into one of America's most prestigious cheese-making operations. Miles' daughter Susi was delivering her father's cheese the day she met Mario in 1992. Mario wasn't all that happy at the time and was thinking of moving back to Seattle. "But Susi encouraged me to stay in New York and see what we could do," Batali told an interviewer for the Rutgers alumni magazine. "Isn't it funny how fate changes everything?" Batali struck out on his own for the first time with a 34-seat eatery called P�t was a hit. TV called. That led Batali to a link with another family, the Bastianiches: New York restaurant queen and PBS cook Lydia introduced Mario to her son Joe, who's now a partner in, and front-of-the-house guy for, all the Batali restaurants. What set Batali's restaurants apart from the crowd? Seattle star chef Tom Douglas thinks the big thing was courage: "Mario had the courage to take his conviction that all great cooking is, is perfect ingredients, simply prepared, and just put it on a plate. Most chefs are afraid to do that; we get fussy and fancy it up. Mario puts his food on a plain white plate and makes people see that's how it ought to be." WHAT BATALI brought to Manhattan dining was something he learned both at home and in Italy: There is no better seasoning for food than fellowship. His restaurants are crafted to encourage it. And you don't have to visit New York (and make reservations a month in advance) to experience what makes Lupa and Esca and Babbo so popular. Just drop by Salumi some Tuesday through Friday. After 30-odd years with Boeing, Armandino Batali "retired," which in his case meant spending a couple of years here and in Europe mastering the traditional butcher's art of salting, curing, and otherwise glorifying the peripheral bits of a cow or a pig neglected by haute cuisine: tongue, lips, trotters, cheeks, tail, and the like. He then opened Salumi to bring these now-delectable bits to you. The sandwiches at Salumi are good. But if you want to taste them at their best, you can't take them back to the office. Sit down at the communal table at the back. Unwrap your oxtail with onion or your fennel sausage hoagie. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Join the conversation. Let the time go by. Never mind you feel like you're in an Olive Garden commercial—this is real, and Olive Garden food never tasted like this. On two coasts, two Batalis are open for business, reminding us that life can still be sweet, and that every one of us who cares to can do something to make it sweeter. Nominated each year since 2000, Mario Batali at last received the "Best Chef in New York" award from the James Beard Foundation at its annual ceremony Monday night.

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