(3 of 9)
For those who know Batali only as the host of how-to cooking shows where he prepares uncommon Italian dishes--Paduan gnocchi, quail with peas, something called lamb squazetto and literally thousands of others--the NASCAR partnership will come as a surprise. (As will some of the dishes in the new cookbook, which include mudslide pie made with Oreos and graham crackers.) But Batali's visits to NASCAR events to research the book revealed--not least to him--that his appeal transcends foodies or Italophiles. Last June, just before he threw the green flag at the NASCAR event at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., tens of thousands of fans began to chant, "MOLTO! MARIO!"--a reference to Molto Mario, one of the five Food Network shows in which he has starred since 1996. NASCAR was impressed. "You have a certain image of chefs, especially in New York, as hoity-toity," says Mark Dyer, a NASCAR vice president. "But this guy gets into the infield and is just one of the guys ... In many ways, these events are like big Woodstocks every weekend. Sometimes there are 150,000, even 200,000 people camping, cooking out, having a good time. And Mario, you know, he is capable of being at the center of any good time." He is also a guy who understands the concept of synergy: on the back of the NASCAR book you'll find a snapshot of Batali (sunglasses, regal smile, a gold marker in hand for autographs) standing beside NASCAR legend Richard Childress--and next to them is a bottle of wine from the vineyard (called La Mozza) that Batali and Bastianich own in Tuscany.
Batali the mogul is an emerging figure, but Batali the chef is captured in an incisive, cracklingly funny book scheduled for release May 30. Actually, as you can guess from the title--Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher (Alfred A. Knopf; 325 pages)--the book is mostly about the author, Bill Buford, a former New Yorker editor and freakishly dedicated foodie. Buford went to work as a cook at Babbo, one of seven Batali-Bastianich restaurants in Manhattan. But Batali is the book's most memorable, entertaining character. In one scene--a dinner at Batali's restaurant Lupa--Buford, his wife and Batali share at least 10 bottles of wine and a prodigious amount of food. "By the time the pastas appeared (I hadn't realized that the first 35 dishes were starters), my notes grew less reliable," writes Buford. "According to one entry, there were eight pastas ... followed by an instruction to [Buford's wife] from Mario--'You will eat the pasta, or I will rub the shrimp across your breasts'--which is confusing because I don't remember any shrimp." (Batali says, chuckling, that he doesn't recall uttering those words.)