After a couple of days of not so quiet contemplation, as well as some serious Italian restaurant eating, I have decided that Babbo

is my favorite Italian restaurant in NYC. Why? Because of how I feel when I eat there. Babbo has the greatest vibe and the best energy of any restaurant I know, Italian or not. I feel great as soon as I walk in the door, even when I'm confronted by a crush of people at the bar and on occasion a less than warm and gracious welcome. I feel I'm smack dab in the middle of something both energizing and transportive. I have eaten at Babbo dozens of times, and the food is full of gusto and energy and panache as well. The pastas, the sweetbreads, the skirt steak (is it still on the menu?), the lamb chops, and even the desserts (not normally the strongest suit of an Italian restaurant) are almost always satisfying, earthy, a little bit showy, and extremely delicious. I don't even mind the music, though it can get way too loud late at night, because Mario generally has very good taste in jazz and rock. Though it's never quiet in Babbo, you can almost always carry on a conversation with your tablemates without raising your voice. I have heard people complain about their meal at Babbo (the food and the overall experience), but for my money it defines what contemporary Italian dining is in NYC right now. 110 Waverly Pl. (just east of sixth avenue) 212-777-0303.

My other top four:

Esca fantastic raw seafood creations (called crudo), exemplary pastas (I'm partial to the one with sea urchin and crabmeat), and deceptively simple, fresher than fresh, grilled, sauteed and baked fish main courses. 402 W. 43rd St. (just west of ninth avenue) 212-562-7272.

Teodora: Chef Giancarlo Quaddalti is from Bologna, so when you go to Teodora have the lasagna. It's the real thing. Teodora really feels Italian, from the cooking to the vibe to the Italian being spoken at many tables. 141 E.57th St. (just east of Lexington Ave.) 212-826-7101

Del Posto Inoteca The casual side of Del Posto, the Inoteca's cooking is a little more soulful and significantly cheaper than its big brother. They even have chicken cacciatoria on the menu. Great nibbles, pastas, salads, meat dishes like a pork loin with fig salad, juicy skirt steak, just food you want to eat. They only take reservations there the same day, and when I went the other night, there were a number of empty tables, In other words, you can get in without speed-dialing. 85 Tenth Ave. (between 15th and 16th streets, 212-497-8090)

L'Impero Scott Conant's cabrito (goat) is reason enough to go to L'Impero, and he has a fantastic way with pastas and starters as well. 45 Tudor City Pl., 212-599-5045.

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