November 02, 1998 12:00 PM

Watching his staff gear up for another frenzied night at Babbo, his Manhattan bistro, Mario Batali can’t help admiring the physical attributes of a pretty new face in the room. “It’s a beauty, huh?” he says, eyes lingering over the glowing orange skin and neatly coiffed green stalk. “Perfect,” he sighs, then calls to the object of his affection, “Nice pumpkin!”

When it comes to food, Batali, 38, is always fresh. “We really get stuff that was picked yesterday,” says the beefy redhead. “That’s the sexiest thing for me, getting food from the dirt to the table.” What seems sexy to Batali is merely delicious to the small army of celebs (including Sarah Jessica Parker, Martha Stewart and Linda Evangelista) and critics flocking to both Babbo and Pó, the restaurants he runs in Greenwich Village. Batali’s trademark outfit of shorts and orange clogs is becoming increasingly familiar to the many viewers of his two popular Food Network cooking shows, Molto Mario and Mediterranean Mario, which extend his culinary borders to North Africa, Turkey, Greece and Israel. And this month he is publishing his first cookbook, Simple Italian Food: Recipes from My Two Villages. That should delight regulars like defrocked designer-turned-aspiring movie star Isaac Mizrahi, who says his dreams are haunted by a pistachio semifreddo, a sort of Italian Eskimo pie Batali serves for dessert at Babbo. “Knowing it exists in the world is torture,” says Mizrahi.

Critical praise has also greeted the creative pastas and meat dishes that won Babbo a three-star review from The New York Times in August. And though most chefs might think twice about attempting quail spiedini or calf’s brains ravioli with sage and oregano flowers, Batali says that, while his combinations are exotic, his philosophy is simple. “It’s all about approach,” he says. “Every cook in Italy uses what grows around them. I use local American products, but with the same respect and simplicity Italians do. That’s my shtick.”

It’s an inclination he picked up as a child in the suburbs of Seattle. Raised by second-generation Italian-American Armandino, now a retired Boeing engineer, and Marilyn, a retired nurse, Batali and his younger siblings (Dana, 37, and Gina, 35) learned to see the seasons in terms of the blackberries, deer and baby onions that appeared on the family table. “The whole family experience was about food,” says Batali. And though he earned a degree in finance from Rutgers University in New Jersey, Batali eventually realized he much preferred tossing dough at the local pizza joint.

Set on a career in the kitchen, Batali enrolled at the renowned Cordon Bleu school in London but soon dropped out to get hands-on experience in one of the city’s top French restaurants. Moving to San Francisco in 1984, he hurtled up the sous-chef ladder of the Four Seasons Hotel chain before quitting in 1989 to trade free work for cooking lessons in a family-run trattoria in Borgo Capanne, Italy. “It was the most radical thing I ever did,” he says. “And the best thing for my cooking style.”

Eager to establish himself, Batali moved to New York City, where he spent a year revamping the menu of a fading spaghetti-and-meatballs joint, then went on his own to launch the elegant and surprisingly affordable Pó, which won raves when it opened in 1993. Batali’s casual élan easily translated to his Food Network show: “I just showed up and started cooking.”

His career now on a rolling boil, Batali spends less time than he would like at home in New York City with wife Susi Cahn—they met in 1993 when she sold him goat cheese from her family’s farm—and sons Benno, 2, and Leo, 5 months. Still, Batali has already passed along some of the family legacy to his older boy. “Pasta is his favorite thing,” Cahn says. His feelings for pumpkins, though, remain to be seen.

Peter Ames Carlin

Joseph V. Tirella in New York City

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