The Twin Towers have a strange presence still, a memory that intrudes into every day of my life in New York City like some phantom limb. On September 11th, while standing at my window holding a frilly pastry I’d made for a photo shoot, I saw the towers engulfed in smoke and flames; they crumbled before my very eyes. That evening in tears, I lost count after twenty-two ambulances screamed past my window, and I breathed in the acrid, unthinkable smoke.
I was heartsick, almost speechless from shock. By the third day, the relentlessness and weight of it all made me desperate for escape. Where could my boyfriend David and I find respite if only for a few hours? I imagined sitting in Babbo, Mario Batali’s restaurant downtown in Greenwich Village. But the village had become a no-mans land: there were barricades at 14th street, no cars were allowed beyond, and few people were venturing out on foot. My hope was so great I picked up the phone.
“Hey, are you open?”
“Yes, yes. We are. We’ve got just the downstairs open, for whoever can get here”.
“Do we need a reservation?”
David and I walked across 14th street and down Fifth Avenue. Street lights were out, the towers that had been a beacon due south were gone, leaving smoke-colored sky in their place. Smoky air was the lens that we looked through. Walking in the carless street was an oddly liberating feeling, made dissonant by the stench and oppressiveness of the caustic air and distant sirens. At Washington Square Arch, people stood quietly at the vast makeshift shrine that had bloomed across its base. Faces smiled from photographs lit by flickering votives – men hugging girl friends, smiling couples in evening clothes – taken on an ordinary day. The photographs were entwined with scribbled notes and prayers, and scrawled signs with heartbreaking words: “Have you seen this person?”
We walked on through the hushed, darkened park to Waverly Place.
Crossing the threshhold into Babbo felt like a hand had pulled us through a scrim, hauling us out of the bleak landscape into a world of color. Joe Strummer was playing loud; people sat at the bar drinking icy cocktails, eating plates of pasta. At the end of the bar stood Mario in shorts and orange clogs, huge belly unselfconsciously cloaked in a chef’s coat. He gave me a hug but no words for what had happened except “hey baby”, and “welcome” to my boyfriend, and handed us Bellinis made with the last white peaches of summer. David and I settled wearily onto a banquette, side-by-side as the waiter pushed the table in place, a grownups version of being tucked into bed.
We knew that we’d be safe, at least for a few hours; we didn’t think beyond that. The food that came out of the kitchen anchored us firmly to the present. A huge arrangement of fall leaves on the center table and a display of cheeses under a drape of gauze were signs of life in the midst of tragedy. We ate chickpea bruschettas, and thin slices of home-cured pork fat – lardo – dusted with herbs and a fennel-spiked salami hung for weeks in his curing room that had a pile of Piemontese dirt in the corner to season the air. There were no seafood dishes that night, no Squid Lifeguard Style or whole perfect little branzino-for-one with lemon-and-oregano jam; no purveyors had been able to enter the locked-down city. Instead we ate rich fortifying meats and pasta: warm lamb’s tongue salad with a tiny soft-cooked quail egg plunked in the center; beef cheek ravioli’s, and goat cheese tortolloni dusted with fennel pollen that made me think of anise-scented fields full of honey bees.
photo: christopher hirscheimer
David and I held hands and sipped our wine comforted by the link to lush vineyards; we ate and ate, watching the activities of waiters and sommeliers and the faces of people across the way. There was a feeling of communion in the room as though we had taken refuge in some odd, rarefied chapel. Throughout the evening Mario played long riffs of Rolling Stones and Joe Strummer louder and louder, a big “fuck you” to the terrors around us. He sent over Noccino, his bitter, delicious liqueur made from green walnuts picked, he said, on June 24th, the Feast of San Giovanni, as it has been for centuries. The food and wine were signs of order in the world, basic talismans of survival that also seemed like a great forthright “fuck you”, an act of defiance to the repressive violence we had experienced. We sat for hours, all hell breaking loose around us, aware of the extraordinary moment, heartened.
When I got home that night, I found an email from Peggy, a friend in Italy. It was short, describing the shock she felt upon watching the attack on TV from the small town in Tuscany where she was living. She told me of running into a baker we knew there who was carrying on his family’s generations-long business of bread baking and beloved for his astonishing tenor, and arias sung acapella. “Debbiamo comabattere con la belleza” he said as he and Peggy talked about the change in life that had been wrought in a moment. “We need to fight back with beauty”.
I’ve thought often of that night, of Mario holding down the fort at Babbo when he could have stayed home with his kids, or gotten his family the hell out of town. As famous as he was, I would have expected him to close his doors and take a powder. Yet he was there, defiant, like an angry cowboy sweeping away every glass off the bar onto the floor, saying a big “fuck you”, with beauty.
Babbo photos via the Babbo Cookbook.