More than a year ago, I was on the verge of reviewing Del Posto when the news intervened. The restaurant had changed significantly since the last time it had been evaluated by a Times critic: Sam Sifton promoted it from three stars to four in 2010, when Mark Ladner was the executive chef and Brooks Headley was running the pastry kitchen.
First, Mr. Headley had quit this stately, expensive Italian restaurant in Chelsea so he could sell fast, cheap vegetarian burgers. Next, Del Posto had spent about $1 million on crystal candle vases, white leather chairs and other luxurious fittings that made it even more stately and expensive. Finally, Mr. Ladner had left to sell fast, cheap pasta. A fresh review was clearly in order.
Before I could write it, though, a number of women who had worked for Mario Batali, one of the owners, started talking about the sexual harassment and abuse that they say he had doled out. Suddenly there seemed to be more important questions than whether the braised-rabbit agnolotti were cooked al dente.
sold his stake in March to a group led by his former partner, Joe Bastianich. Employees have said that Mr. Bastianich himself helped, at a minimum, to build the sexist and disrespectful environment in which Mr. Batali operated. Mr. Bastianich has apologized, saying that he had heard Mr. Batali speak inappropriately to employees, and that he should have done more to stop the sexual harassment.
Aquavit, the grandest and most expensive restaurant in New York where women are in charge of everything you eat, starting with the miniature saffron waffle rolled like a cannoli and stuffed at one tiny end with taleggio and at the other with fennel pesto, and ending with the prosecco marshmallow tucked into the wooden drawer of a custom-made cheese grater.
The cooking is more subdued now. The kitchen is not seen as a beacon of innovation the way it used to be, perhaps because Ms. Rodriguez is less interested than Mr. Ladner was in feats of technical derring-do like 100-layer lasagnas. She gets her effects by following old Italian templates and putting them together so elegantly that they seem to light up from inside. There’s an honesty to her approach — she doesn’t try to shoot out all the lights by supercharging dishes with fat — but it’s not the kind of peasant simplicity people usually mean when they talk about honesty in Italian food. It’s a sophisticated honesty.
You know chicken cacciatore, of course. Ms. Rodriguez’s version is made from guinea hen breast, roasted until the skin crackles like parchment. What would be the body of the stew is now a sauce; the tomato, celery and onion in it come through distinctly. Occupying a little sidecar is a pressed puck of braised leg meat under a single, Roman-style gnocco, a small featherbed of semolina held together by eggs, milk and cheese. One side has been broiled so hard it is nearly burned, which seems like a mistake at first, but turns out to supply the bit of campfire that this hunter’s stew needs. It has to be far more complicated to prepare than the cacciatore at your neighborhood Italian restaurant, but it seems simpler, pared to essentials, and wonderful in every bite.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns or Noma, for instance, is integrated into the experience. Is it stretching a point to ask if enshrining subservience, as Del Posto does, reflects the same twisted sense of priorities that allowed Mr. Batali to get away with abusing his own power for so long? (And is it a coincidence that far more men than women seem to work in the dining room, particularly in the upper ranks?)
Now that Ms. Rodriguez owns a piece of the restaurant, perhaps she can lead a reconsideration of priorities in the front of the house, and find a tone that more closely matches her philosophy in the back. She shouldn’t have to clean up the messes men made. But having worked her way to the top of a restaurant that has always aspired to provide luxury, she has a chance to decide what, in New York in 2019, that word might mean.
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