Emilio's Ballato Italian Restaurant: Manhattan's Hidden Gem! - New York City Article
Emilio's Ballato Italian Restaurant: Manhattan's Hidden Gem!
By: Kevin Yazell
When Vlado, one of the doormen at my apt building here in Manhattan, started telling me stories about serving John Lennon, Andy Warhol and a long list of other well-known celebrities when he worked at Emilio's Ballato Italian restaurant many years ago, I knew I had to see this place for myself.
Vlado's stories were intriguing and he remembered so many details; such as when and why different celebs came to the restaurant at specific times, what they liked to eat and how they liked to be served. Immediately upon arriving at the restaurant, I became a fan of this authentic and rustic bistro located on E. Houston St., just a few blocks north of Little Italy in a neighborhood that is now referred to as "Nolita."
Authentic Old-School Ambiance in Nolita
This cozy space is authentic to the core. The music, menu, wine list, recipes used and the décor leave you with the unmistakable impression you will be eating Italian food! A very deep sense of tradition, integrity, discretion and love oozes from this old school NYC eatery. History and food is what Ballato is all about. Owner Emilio Vitolo knows if the food isn’t good, people won’t show.
Back in the 70’s during the days of the ‘Bowery Bums” you would be granted access to this “under the radar” destination by knocking on the front door. If known to the staff as they peered through the chain locking the door, you would be allowed inside.
Today, weather permitting, you’ll find the front door open and Emilio sitting at his favorite table in the front of the restaurant. Emilio is always on hand greeting customers and his many friends stopping by throughout the day.
Food & History in NYC
Emilio comes from a family of 10 and his mother was originally from Naples. The family lived in the town of Serno in the Campania region of Southern Italy. This area of Italy is also where Vesuvio Tomatoes originated. Emilio credits his great taste and cooking skills to his mother, as well as to working with a number of exceptional chefs throughout his career.
Emilio has been cooking since he was nine years old. After moving to Astoria, Queens with his family in 1968, he began working at a local German bakery, making doughnuts in a copper pot with lard. He knew and felt it right then, at that early age, that all he wanted to do was cook and to eventually own his own restaurant.
After leaving the German bakery in 1973, he began working at Ferrara’s on Grand Street in Little Italy and stayed there until 1989. He had to have his school sign papers allowing him to work at Ferrara’s. There is a photo of a young 15 year old Emilio making Cannolis at Ferrara’s above his favorite front corner table at Ballato.
He was a private chef for a couple of years and then was made aware of the opportunity to purchase Ballato from then-owner Sal Anthony in 1991. Mr. Anthony had purchased the restaurant from original owner John Ballato and the restaurant lost some of its luster during his tenure there. Emilio took on a partner, bought Ballato and has discreetly continued his love of cooking to this day.
Simple Italian Recipes = Delicious Cuisine
He prefers simple recipes such as Spaghetti al Pomodoro (Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and basil) and Linguine alle vongole (Linguine with Clam Sauce). Lenny Kravitz prefers the Rigatoni con zucchini (pasta with zucchini and tomato sauce).
Celebrity Guests at Emilio's Ballato NYC
Famous guests of Ballato include several Presidents, ranging from Kennedy to Obama. Rock and rollers as well as celebs also regularly dine here, including his good friends Lenny Kravitz, Denzel Washington and Billy Joel. Paul McCartney had dined at the restaurant the night before I paid this particular visit! Emilio was also very close to David Bowie, who lived nearby and ate at this restaurant regularly.
There are many photos in the dining room commemorating visits from the rich and famous, but what makes it special is that everyone is welcome at this NYC dining destination! Every meal I’ve had here far exceeds expectations and it's hard to believe this place has stayed under the radar for so many years.
Love, Dedication and Inspiration
Emilio has these words for those inspired to own their own restaurant or any successful business:
“Love what you’re doing and never give up before the miracle happens. Never give up!”
One of Emilio’s miracles came in the form of a sensational and unsolicited review from the New York Times in October of 2011, which recognized how special this eatery really is.
You absolutely must experience Emilio’s Ballato! It’s like an old shoe… The older it gets the better it is! No reservations are accepted, but venture down to E. Houston St. for a night you won’t soon forget.
As Emilio pointed out before I left, “You can serve the best food in the worst neighborhood and people will come regardless. You can serve bad food in the best location and your dining room will be empty!”
55 E. Houston St.
(between Mott & Mulberry Sts)
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