With its chain-heavy restaurant scene, the booming Seaport gets little love from food nerds. Aside from the often-middling food, we worry that vacuuming up customers and talented staff hurts worthier Boston independents. We greet New York-based celebrity chefs with a similar squint: Can those deep-pocketed food-TV names reproduce their Gotham magic here? I’ve enjoyed several NYC restaurants from the storied team of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich and was particularly impressed by the affordability of their Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, which focuses on Italian small plates, pastas, thin-crust pizzas and affordable wines. So I approached the new Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca, which despite the name is close to a clone of Manhattan’s Otto, with more optimism.
The wide-open, rather loud room is appealing, with its long, comfortable bar, dual dining bars fronting open kitchens and tables with simple wooden furnishings. The meal starts with excellent, warm, hard-crusted bread and olive oil. A salad of escarole and sunchoke is simple, perfectly dressed and generously portioned for $8. It’s easy to like the assortment of inexpensive small plates, starting with a superb cool salad of farro and corn topped with a large dollop of creamy stracciatella ($5). Cauliflower alla siciliana ($5) dotted with capers, as well as lentils Toscana ($5) featuring al dente green legumes and fatty pancetta, are both a trifle bland but deliver solid peasant comfort. But the fresh-from-the-fridge chill on eggplant caponata ($5) regrettably mutes its flavors; let it warm up for half an hour, and it’s smashing. Meanwhile, peperonata ($5) is unimpeachable: a vivid dish of stewed sweet red peppers, tomatoes and onions. Small cold seafood plates show similar schizophrenia. Portuguese sardines ($7) atop a nest of frisée are of excellent quality, but the tariff seems a bit steep for three small fish. By contrast, baccalà mantecato ($7) is a plentiful mound of airy, smoothly whipped salt cod, potatoes, garlic, oil and cream, a delectable spread for the good bread.
The wood-fired chew, crust and char on the pizzas here are fantastic, but toppings don’t always equal their foundation. Vongole pizza ($14) is gorgeously covered with more than a dozen perfect cockles still in their shells that burst with briny flavor, but brutal oversalting makes this pie almost inedible. Guanciale pizza ($14) offers better balance with cured pork jowl, parmigiano and scallions, but the egg at its center is overcooked, denying us the pleasure of smearing its yolk around.
Salumi ($9 each, $25 for all five) and formaggio ($11 for three, $15 for five, $19 for seven) are of fine quality, served at the proper temperatures and fairly priced; one could easily make a lovely meal of these. Frittelle con prosciutto ($8) is a tasty bargain: a pile of crunchy-crusted, globular fritters of escarole, bread, milk and dry-cured ham. The oven finishes the similarly terrific polpette ($13), meatballs of pork shoulder and brisket in Sunday sugo, a bright, chunky tomato sauce, but I encountered a small, sharp bone in one meatball. The seesaw soars upward with dazzling grilled razor clams ($18), another heaping portion of flawless specimens showered with garlic, lemon and basil.
Pastas are also a puzzling mixed bag. Spaghetti carbonara ($10), sauced with the canonical pancetta, scallions, black pepper and egg yolk, is amazing, all about the yolk. Then comes rigatoni cacio e pepe ($10), the quintessentially simple Roman dish dressed only with great pecorino and lots of black pepper. The kitchen miscalculates badly by subbing heavy rigatoni for light, underdone spaghetti, but its greater sin is another overdose of salt. At the other end of the pendulum’s swing is linguine with Maine crab ($15) with jalapeños and lemon breadcrumbs: beautiful, balanced, wonderful.
Desserts are another roll of the dice. Baba al limoncello ($10) has the elements of a great creamy citrus dessert, with excellent fior di latte gelato and bracing lemon cream, but its muffin-like cake is too dry. Opt for olive oil coppetta ($10), and you’ll get a pretty little sundae of olive oil gelato, lime curd, strawberry granita, pignoli brittle and basil syrup: an eye-catching assortment of flavors and textures. As in New York, a deep list of exclusively Italian wines by the glass, quartino and bottle is thoughtful and fairly priced. The skilled and hustling barstaff knows its proper cocktails and pours an outstanding, 18-deep selection of Italian amari—including Cappelletti L’Elisir Novasalus ($7), a palate-whacking, pine-tarry, black digestivo that makes Fernet-Branca seem wimpy—in proper chimney glasses. The cheery waitstaff exhibits decent wine knowledge and admirable mastery of the long menu; one wonders if frequent expressions of awe at their legendary long-distance bosses are part of the training.
In the end, Babbo Pizzeria is slightly confounding in its unevenness. When it’s good, it’s delightful, and invariably ends with a surprisingly modest check, especially given the expected premiums for its marquee chef’s fame and touristy location. But given the pedigree, the number of menu landmines and kitchen miscues is disconcerting. Order carefully, and you can say (with too-faint praise, given the competition) that it’s the best reason to dine and drink in the Seaport. Hit enough of those potholes, though, and you may wonder why there’s so much fuss about the increasingly ubiquitous Mario and Joe.
-Farro, corn & stracciatella
-Frittelle con prosciutto
-Linguini with Maine crab
-Olive oil coppetta
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 11 am-midnight; Fri.-Sat. 11 am-1 am
Parking: Nearby private lots
Liquor: Full bar
Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca 11 Fan Pier Blvd., Boston (617-421-4466) babbopizzeria.com