ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — Here in New York City, plenty of celebrities pop up in the front rows at Knicks and Nets games, although it’s not always clear just how many of them are actual NBA fans. New York-based chef and television personality Mario Batali fits both bills. Batali grew up in Seattle as a Sonics fan, but these days has allegiances to — gasp! — both the Knicks and Nets. As Batali explains, “I’m not such a fierce Geo-specific fan.”
In between running his acclaimed restaurant empire and appearing daily on ABC’s “The Chew,” Batali says he finds time to not only follow the NBA but even plan family trips to out of town games. I caught up with Batali last week on the set of “The Chew” where he was posing with the crystalized “BIG IS ON” basketball that is currently making its way around New York City.
ME: I know that a lot of NBA players have eaten at your restaurants. For example, Emeka Okafor has told me he loves your food.
MARIO: I’ll tell you one thing about Emeka: That guy can eat enough to make every kitchen happy in the world. Like, he’ll have two appetizers, two pastas, and then he’ll have a steak for two. He eats it and he loves it, he gives you goosebumps. He’s just delightful.
ME: And you’re a big NBA fan?
MARIO: Huge NBA fan.
ME: You’re originally from Seattle, right?
MARIO: (laughs) Back when we had a team!
ME: So you grew up a Sonics fan?
MARIO: Definitely. For me, the greatest thing to collect right now is original, vintage Sonics hats and shirts. They’re beautiful. That logo — come on. They hardly did one better.
ME: So that was, like, Lenny Wilkens-era Sonics?
MARIO: Spencer Haywood…
ME: Slick Watts?
MARIO: Absolutely! Downtown Freddie Brown! Come on, we had the guys.
ME: I know you lived in Italy for a while. Was basketball as popular in Europe then as it is today?
MARIO: I was there in the ‘80s, and it was already — after soccer — the biggest sport. Absolutely, no question about it. We got great players who either had problems or didn’t quite make the team and they were over there playing basketball, going crazy, living in these tiny little towns. It wasn’t like all Rome and Milan, you know. Here all the teams are in major, major cities. They were in Venice, they were in Verona, towns with like 200,000 or 300,000 people. It totally changed the way Italians looked at American sports. And for the positive. The world loves American sports. We do it better than anybody else, except soccer.
ME: I’ve seen you at Knicks games. Are the Knicks your team?
MARIO: Knicks and Nets.
ME: Both? Can you have two rival teams?
MARIO: Yes! Here’s the story. Since I’m from Seattle and I’ve been disenfranchised, I can have two teams. I take a lot of heat from The Original Fan. The Original Fan says I can’t like the Jets and the Giants, but I like Eli and I like Geno. And I like Mark Sanchez. And in basketball, I like Paul Pierce. How can I not go for Paul Pierce, right? He’s a Boston guy, but he’s on my team now.
ME: You have two teenage sons. Are they fans of both teams also?
MARIO: They’re Carmelo fans. They were Mike D’Antoni fans. But they’ll be happy to go see the Nets, too. They go to school in Brooklyn so they drive right by the Barclays Center, which is an impressive building. And the Garden is also impressive, but you can drive by and not even notice sometimes. I take my sons each year on an NBA trip. We traditionally go somewhere for a long weekend with Dad, and we’ve gone to see the Hornets — this year we’re going to see the Pelicans. But we’ve been to Cleveland, during and after LeBron, we’ve been to Dallas, we’ve been to Los Angeles to watch the games. We’ll travel for basketball.
ME: Which athletes eat the most when they’re at your restaurants? Do football players eat more than basketball players?
MARIO: Linemen. Nick Mangold, baby (laughs). But no, actually I would say Nick doesn’t eat more than, say, Emeka. In terms of water displacement Emeka might displace more water than even Nick. But there’s a respect in the sports world, particularly the basketball world, where they totally dig our field, and they’re totally into what we do as well.
ME: Last thing: If you had to cook and serve a basketball, how would you prepare it to make it even semi-edible?
MARIO: The best way to cook a basketball would be to slice it into paper-thin strips like spaghetti, and toss it with a little Bolognese.