A few years ago, while volunteering at the Food Bank for New York City, I was fortunate to work the kitchen service next to Katie Lee. When I asked her what her favorite Italian restaurant was, she said Emilio’s Ballato, a place I had never heard of, despite having read about or been to most of the great New York red sauce joints by then.
I’ve since read most of the Emilio’s Ballato folklore, including the New York Times story that described when Lenny Kravitz bought the restaurant a new red awning. It’s best known as a celebrity hotspot, partly for the food, and partly for the discretion afforded to the rich and famous by the Vitolo family (from father and owner Emilio, to son and Executive Chef Anthony).
I finally made plans to visit the restaurant for my 25th birthday, and was frustrated when President Obama dined there a few weeks before, expecting that Obama’s media frenzy and Emilio’s no reservation policy would mean I couldn’t get a table. I was pleasantly surprised when my girlfriend and I snuck in and grabbed a table by the door around 6:30pm on a Sunday night, without a wait. Bear in mind that the restaurant filled up quickly, though, and before long the wait was an hour.
The food was solid and relatively affordable for NYC, and the ambiance is casual and authentic. Our bowls of pasta were prepared classically and very tasty, and Jonah Hill must think so too because he stopped in briefly to collect an order for pick up about halfway through our meal. That being said, there are other Italian restaurants with similar wait times that I prefer to Emilio’s. Perhaps if I were rich and famous – and needed discretion and had the opportunity to cook with the Vitolo’s in the restaurant’s kitchen as many of their VIP clients do – I would appreciate the restaurant as much as they do. Until then, Emilio’s is a solid Italian spot with a phenomenal atmosphere and an even cooler story, but isn’t my favorite in New York.
- Rating: 3/4 Stars
- Pricing: $$$ (Zagat)
- Food: Italian
- Dress Code: Casual
- Neighborhood: NoLita
- Website: None, but there is a Yelp listing
- Instagram: @emiliosballatonyc
Rating System Guidelines:
4 Stars: outstanding, cannot wait to return
3 Stars: great, would be happy to return
2 Stars: good, though not necessary to seek out
1 Star: forgettable, ought to dine elsewhere
My rating is meant to account for not just the quality of the meal and experience, but also the value, without favoring the ultra expensive. In other words, a high-end restaurant (e.g. Del Posto) and a casual eatery (e.g. BaoHaus) can both receive 4/4 stars, even though they are extremely different atmospheres and the former is clearly “nicer.”
Note: The feature photo of Emilio’s Ballato’s red awning is from Zagat.