Gina DePalma and her former boss, Mario Batali. (Courtesy ginadepalma.net)
Gina DePalma knew that a great cookie is as fine a thing as the most complicated dessert. (Courtesy ginadepalma.net)
Honest goodness: A selection of DePalma's creations. (Courtesy ginadepalma.net)
One evening in 2003 (or thereabouts) I was dining at the bar at Babbo, solo (Jay McInerney was also alone for dinner, seated at my left; we talked wine). I had enjoyed a few courses — a sweetbread, some testa, Mint Love Letters and beef cheek ravioli — and was waiting on dessert (I believe it was saffron panna cotta).
I had casually asked the bartender about an ingredient in one of the desserts, and several minutes later a woman appeared at my side. She said her name was Gina, and we proceeded to have a beautiful (albeit brief) conversation about cooking and baking and life in general. She was gracious with her time, and I got the sense that she absolutely loved her work.
I knew who she was, of course, because Babbo was and is one of my favorite restaurants. I celebrated myriad birthdays and anniversaries there and reckon I have spent the better part of at least 40 evenings at one of its tables or at the bar, to say nothing of lunches. But that evening was special, because it was the first time I had the pleasure of meeting Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at Babbo. As she told me about the panna cotta and the olive oil cake — my two favorite desserts on the menu —the night grew more enjoyable.
Every time I visited the restaurant after that evening, I made sure to say hello to DePalma, who always spared a few moments for conversation. I loved her food, and I adored and respected her lack of pretense. She cooked, and she cooked well.
DePalma passed away earlier this week, after a long struggle with ovarian cancer. She helped open Babbo and worked there for 15 years — until 2013 — guiding the restaurant’s pastry program and delighting diners night after night with honest and delicious desserts.
I’ll think of her next time I have the pleasure of taking my place at that bar, and I’ll probably skip dessert. Rest in peace, Ms. DePalma.