Emilio’s Ballato: Small Restaurant, Big Name Clientele

Located on East Houston Street near Mott Street, under a grimy red awning that appears to be a fading pizza parlor, Emilio’s Ballato doesn’t look like much. But inside, diners are captivated.

On the walls there are framed album covers and snapshots of pop stars (David Bowie, Billy Joel, Rihanna, Justin Bieber). Celebrities and locals alike flock to the restaurant for the spectacular food cooked up by celebrated chefs who specialize in elegant iterations of Italian food. Although Emilio’s Ballato is a small, narrow, sleepily old-school NoLIta restaurant, it was has become a de facto dining room for some of the most famous people in the city, especially musicians.

The collections of autographed snapshots of rock stars at Emilio’s Ballato are not one-time shots that happened years ago. The celebrities and rock stars keep coming back. On any given night, Lenny Kravitz, Bowie and Jon Bon Jovi might wander in, asking whether they can get a table in the back room. Other celebrity return customers include Snoop Dogg, Sheryl Crow, Rihanna, Daniel Day-Lewis and L.A. Reid.

Restaurant chef and owner, Emilio Vitolo said, “They just come. I swear to God. Lenny might come in with Denzel. It’s word of mouth.” To some of the stars, Vitolo is the most intriguing person in the room.

Alexa Ray Joel, a singer and songwriter who dines at Ballato two or three times a week, and whose father is a Ballato fan named Billy Joel, said, “I always say: ‘Emilio, smile. You’re going to scare people away.” Vitolo, a large and somewhat intimidating at first man, can be an effusive conversationalist. Reports say that people often find themselves caught up in a long, detail-rich disquisition on the subject of San Marano tomatoes, which are cultivated in the area of southern Italy where Vitolo was born.

Vitolo says that the fact that the San Marano tomatoes have no seeds makes all the difference in taste. “Seeds give the sauce a trace of bitterness,” he said.

Kravitz, a Ballato regular for around 13 years, said, “He’s all love. I used to live on Crosby Street, right around the corner, and there were nights when I was sick, and it was raining, and I was hungry, and the dude cooked me food and walked it over himself.”

When Vitolo mentioned to Kravitz in passing that the red awning out front needed to be replaced, Kravitz promised to take care of it upon paying his bill one day. “On the tip,” Kravitz said, “I put, ‘a new awning, and I got him a new awning. That’s how much I care about the place.”

Emilio’s Ballato features a menu that is full of many of the same veal-parm-and-fresh-mozzarella fixtures that many hip Italian restaurants serve, but something is different. Scarpetto chef Scott Conant said, “When you go to a place like this, normally what you get is just heavy-handed food, and that has led me to being really disappointed in a lot of Italian-American food. I rarely go to the same restaurant twice, but I’ve been to Ballato’s six or seven times.”

Vitolo, who worked as a cook and pastry chef when he was younger, purchased the space with a partner in 1992. He committed himself to a course of study, fine-tuning recipes in the kitchen and, during his nights off, heading out to analyze what other chefs were doing. To this day, Vitolo still does that.

“I go all over the city, and I try to find a good place,” he said. “I like Michael White. I think he’s on the ball. He has a lot of love for it. And you know who’s pretty good at it? Mario Batali.”

“I’m possessed with this type of food,” he said. “I sleep with it. Money follows, but I don’t care about the money. I’m a fanatic. I’m a freak. When you say, ‘That’s the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life,’ that’s like giving me a million dollars.”

Source: New York Times

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