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Barbetta on Mad Men: Every Date Feels Like a First Date

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On Sunday's episode of Mad Men, "The Summer Man," Donald Draper took society girl Bethany out on a date to the restaurant Barbetta on West 46th Street in Manhattan's Theater District restaurant row, a restaurant which incidentally is still in operation today. What is it with Don taking her to themed restaurants? Mere episodes ago, he took her to the original, and at the time only, Benihana.

Barbetta claims to be the "oldest restaurant in New York that is still owned by the family that founded it." It also claims to be the oldest Italian restaurant in New York City, to be the first restaurant (in New York?) to serve risotto and polenta (1906), white truffles (1962), sun-dried tomatoes (1968), and panna cotta (1984). An entire list of "firsts" can be found on the restaurant's website — we'll take them at their word on all of that. They also happen to own truffle hounds that search the Piemonte countryside in Italy during truffle season to supply the restaurant.

Barbetta's Dining Room and Garden

[Photos: Barbetta]


History

Opened in 1906 by Sebastiano Maioglio, the restaurant's first location was on 39th Street. In 1925, Mr. Maioglio bought four brownstone townhouses from the Astor family on West 46th Street and moved the restaurant there, where it still resides. In 1959 he closed the restaurant because of ill health, and in 1962, his daughter Laura assumed control and spent a year undergoing massive renovations. Out went the "spartan decor," and in came 18th-century Italian antiques and a chandelier that once belonged to the royal Savoy family from Turin. Barbetta's website has a more in-depth history.

Barbetta also has an award-winning wine list. "It is hard to believe now," says the restaurant's website, "that in 1962, when Ms. Maioglio took over Barbetta, only one Barolo was being imported into America... For many years, Barbetta brought in for itself alone the only Barbaresco, Gattinara, and Ghemme to be found in this country." The New York Sun reported that "the wine list was once as French as [the now-closed famed French restaurant] Lutece's." Ms. Maioglio decided in the 1970s to focus only on Italian wines, so much so that "Champagne was the only French wine to be found at Barbetta."

In its early era, Barbetta hosted opera singers and Broadway performers. Later in the 1960s it held fashion designer events. It has seen mayors and other famous New Yorkers including John Lennon and Andy Warhol, who once took Jean-Michel Basquiat there. Also, Dudley Moore was a fan. From Dudley Moore: An Intimate Portrait by Rena Fruchter, we learn that, "While living and performing in New York during the 1970s, he reportedly ordered the same meal at Barbetta day after day for more than a year - gazpacho, fettuccini and chocolate mousse."


Barbetta's 1966 Menu

[Photos: eBay]

The menu under Ms. Maioglio focuses on the northern Italian cuisine of Piemonte. On the menu, next to each dish, the year is noted in which it was first served at Barbetta. "Unlike those restaurants where the arrival of a new chef heralds an almost entirely new menu," says the website, "At Barbetta at any moment in time, the menu is a collection of dishes representing the past, the present, and the future of Barbetta's cuisine."


The Critics

Screenwriter Rian James, in his 1930 restaurant guide Dining in New York (full text at archive.org) — a book that aimed to include "merely those which, by reasons of superior cuisine, entertainment, or atmosphere, stand out—high, wide, and apart" — called the food at Barbetta (back then it was known as Barbetta's) "the acme of excellence." Lots of blockquoting ahead (it's worth it):

Barbetta's, so far as physical surroundings go, is simply a none-too-large, made-over private house, with a square-tiled room in the rear, jammed with uncomfortable tables and unconscionable waiters. But the Finocchio, the Veal Cotlette Parmigiana, the Scallopine of Veal al Marsala, and the curly Chicory with Barbetta dressing, are the things that have made the establishment stand out like an oasis in a desert of French Table d'hotes, one-arm cafeterias, and synthetic Italian Gardens [assuming he's referring to Murray's Roman Gardens?]. The Barbetta clientele is made up largely of Italian singers, musicians, the bigwigs of the Broadway stage, chorus girls whose presence there is more a matter of economy than an epicurean bent, and people who have heard about the place from other people who have heard of it!

Celebrities, stepping out of their divers and sundry characters during the dinner hour, flock to Barbetta's, and half the fun of eating there is in deciding whether that thoroughly attractive gentleman on your left is really [silent film star] Richard Barthelmess or merely someone who looks tremendously like him. Nevertheless, it is the food that brings you in, and it is the food that brings you back, time and again.

(Also see his chapter on tipping: "The author, having paid a total of one hundred and seventy-four dollars over a period of one year to redeem a hat whose original cost was three dollars and a half, feels that he's had some little experience in this direction.")

Gael Greene wrote in November 1970 in New York magazine of "wildly uneven" food, worrying about the small available "pool of haute Italian cooking talent in Manhattan." She described owner Laura Maioglio as "a James Bond stunner in a Pucci 'tennis' dress with non-stop legs and a Hampton tan." "Decades ago it was a rustic little ristorante, plain and inexpensive, a neighborhood hangout for Toscanini, Caruso and Ezio Pinza," Greene wrote, "Perhaps Barbetta is an impossible dream."

Later in a January 1985 New York magazine cover story "That's Italian" (see slideshow above) — her "definitive survey of New York's Italian restaurants" — Greene warned readers of that Barbetta is "famous for its roller coaster ups and downs" but seemed to "be enjoying one of its culinary mood swings—a pleasant high."

In New York Times critic Bryan Miller's one-star review in January 1993, he compared it to "attending a summer repertory theater. In some efforts, the company succeeds surprisingly well, while in others it lays a substantial egg. The best strategy is to go with realistic expectations and a sense of humor."

Ruth Reichl wrote a Diner's Journal entry in June 1994 in the New York Times and offered much praise: "On an afternoon in late spring, there is no nicer place for lunch than the garden at Barbetta... The menu in this restaurant, open since 1906, is so old it seems new."

John Mariani wrote in 2006 about "how unique Barbetta truly is, not only for its great link to the past of grand cucina italiana but for keeping in step and in touch with modern cooking, viticulture, and service." He called it "one of the half-dozen best Italian restaurants in America."

Mike Colameco's 2009 book Food Lover's Guide to New York City described it as "one of the best outdoor dining spots in all of New York." And current Times critic Sam Sifton has recently mentioned the restaurant, writing in passing about "the simple pleasures of Barbetta's garden."



Video: Barbetta on Woody Allen's Alice

Barbetta was used as a location in Woody Allen's 1990 film Alice, in which Alice (Mia Farrow) and Joe (Joe Mantegna) take the invisibility herbs. (Barbetta would also be used as a location in Allen's 1998 film Celebrity.)



Video: Barbetta on Mad Men

While it doesn't appear as though the show was shot in the real-life Barbetta, Mad Men's set design stayed very true to the original: note the wall color, the period menu, and the chandelier:



Laura Maioglio's husband, Günter Blobel

And there's more: Laura Maioglio's husband, Günter Blobel, is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who, as young man during WWII, witnessed Dresden getting firebombed from 30 km away. In 1954, he fled Eastern Germany because he was not allowed to continue his education at a university. He wrote of his wife, "Laura has introduced me to many artistic pleasures that I had not experienced before. She greatly encouraged me in my work and never complained about the many hours I spent in the laboratory." He donated the entire sum of the Nobel Prize — in memory of his sister Ruth who was killed in an air raid on a train she was traveling in 1945 — to the restoration of Dresden.


· Barbetta Restaurant [Official Site]
· All Mad Men Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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