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Restaurant Brat review of Osteria Morini - Pasta Heaven

restaurantbrat Feb 4, 2011 08:04 PM

For full review, with photos: http://restaurantbrat.com

Michael White looks like a gangly lumberjack, a large, statuesque man whose frame is tempered with a slight hunch and a goofy grin. His face looks weathered and his eyes a little tired, but he seems happy—satisfied even—and there is a curious youthfulness in his smile. In the realm of the city’s top Italian chefs, he is perhaps the first that springs to mind, yet comes across nothing like the part. He looks like a Budweiser guy, the type who chugs a few cans and then smokes a pack of Marlboro Reds, the kind who sports baggy plaids and working-class denim on his time off. On this day he wears a heavy gray winter coat and a tweed duckbill cap, and carries a few paper bags of produce from the Sunday Greenmarket. As he strides into the dining room of Osteria Morini, there is a subtle yet certain air of suspense. Patrons stiffen and whisper excitedly to one another while trying not to point or stare. The wait staff smile and bustle about with a noticeably renewed vigor. They part like the Red Sea as he makes his way to the kitchen, and every few tables, diners rise to slap him on the back and exchange greetings. Several shake his hand, in that firm, sincere, two-handed manner that conveys a genuine respect and that always seems to be accompanied by a tilt of the head, prolonged eye-contact and hushed compliments. Right before Chef White enters the kitchen, he whips off his pub cap to reveal a floppy, orange-red center-part that a boyband frontman from the 90’s would be proud of. And then he is gone. The startled, star-struck dining room returns to its lively hum, and diners go back to sipping their wine and twirling their pasta. Such was a surreal highlight in our recent meal (of surreal quality) at Osteria Morini.

I think it is safe to say I am a fan of Michael White. I had one of my most memorable meals of 2010 at Convivio, and had previously also been highly impressed by Alto and Marea. 2011 was to prove a year of change for the Altamarea Group, parent company for White’s stable of restaurants. Barely a month into the year, White is no longer involved at Convivio, the result of an unfortunate split with his business partner Chris Cannon – a sad turn of events that seems sure to affect the overall quality and feel of one of my favorite Italian eateries in the city. He has also relinquished influence at Alto, but keeps in his lineup Marea and also Altamarea’s newest restaurants, Ai Fiori and Osteria Morini. A weekend brunch at the latter, opened a mere three months so ago, was eagerly anticipated, if only to remind me of the exceptional genius that pervaded every aspect of that singularly magnificent meal at Convivio.

Osteria Morini is a lot more casual than White’s other establishments, and less pricey as well. The rustic dining room is bathed in a warm orange glow, and vintage black-and-white prints adorn the brick walls alongside tarnished copper cookware. The air is alive with chatter and a welcoming buzz. Each of White’s restaurants adopts a thematic approach, and while Marea focuses on seafood and Convivio was a temple to the food of South Italy, Morini’s shines its spotlight on the cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy, an area famous for its fresh pastas and rich meat sauces. Our table of twelve (including Comrades in Food the Yaokuis) ordered a selection of antipasti and entrée plates to be shared, but we decided that each of us would choose a pasta dish to be savored individually – based on previous experience with White’s pastas, this was really more common sense than extravagance.

Starter salads of Mare and Porchetta were both good, if unspectacular. The former, an Adriatic style seafood salad with shrimp, squid tentacles, and scallops on a bed of shaved celery and onions, was a mixed bag – I felt the shrimp were not quite as crisp as they could have been, but instead texturally rough. The scallops were fantastic, though, little chopped pieces of succulent love that were fresh and sweet with all the goodness of the ocean. The plate also featured briny, smashed olives, which accentuated the seafood flavors, and provided a pleasant sharpness that paired well with my lunchtime Sazerac. In comparison, the Porchetta salad was much more consistent, and tasty to boot. Featuring a fatty, luscious carpaccio of roasted pork with a heady, intense flavor, this dish was a textural treat, with cold radish and bitter arugula adding definition and crunch to the slices of salty, cured meat. I tasted lemon, rosemary and love.

Small plates of Polpettine—prosciutto and mortadella meatballs—arrived next, slathered generously with a bright red tomato sauce and sprinkled with parmesan. The small, spherical marvels were buttery and soft, with just the right amount of give in every bite. The sweet-sour tang of tomato blended well with the salty, fragrant cheese, to create a perfect coat of flavors for the meatballs. Comfort food at its simplest, and yet at its finest. The next course, of Spanish Mackerel, was just as delicious, but in a completely different way – this was instead a complex dish of contrasting tastes and textures. The mackerel filet was impeccably grilled, with a seared, crispy skin and substantial, meaty flesh. Lying sensually atop a deep purple bed of radicchio and topped with a salsa of capers and carrots, the fish was infused with the zest of lemon and bore the aroma of a lazy summertime beachfront barbeque. A very good dish, indeed.

Chef White’s spin on the classic steak and eggs breakfast was next, in the form of a homely Bistecca plate. Medium-rare strips of skirt steak with home fries and a single fried egg; the combination much more delightful than the meat-and-potatoes label would suggest. The beef was tender and beautiful, aged to perfection and seared with a mouthwatering char. I could have taken down a full bull myself, even without mushroom sauce. Only complaint: I would have preferred my egg a touch less cooked through, so that the yolk remained runny. Osteria Morini’s was a hardened, gelatinous amber casino chip – not the best rendition that I’ve had. Strange how a restaurant can cook the most intricate of dishes flawlessly, but can overlook a simple fried egg. A similarly humble meat that is often neglected for more fashionable cuts these days is chicken, and Osteria Morini’s Pollo was immaculate. Two legs roasted a sublime bronze on each plate, wrapped in heavenly crisp skin; the meat as pristine and bright as fresh bedsheets – juicy, supple, and thoroughly amazing, with a faint sweetness from a red wine reduction.

And then, out of nowhere, they came. Plates of manna sent from Pasta Heaven, lovely heaps of steamy, golden perfection, the work of a brilliant culinary mastermind. My plate of Tagliatelle lived up to all the hype, and suffice to say, even for one as predisposed to the dramatic as myself, it was a profoundly indulgent experience. The noodle ribbons were chewy and starchy, with a glorious al dente texture. The sauce of ragú all’antica was light in construct yet boldly possessing a distinct meaty character, with beef, pork and veal all seemingly present. Delicate flakes of Parmigiano-Reggiano added a depth to the dish, and bound all the elements together in an explosion of wonderful sensuality. I had a taste of one of my dining companions’ Gramigna, handmade yellow and green macaroni with pork sausage. The pasta was even more al dente here, ostensibly to provide a firmer platform for this heavier dish – the purposeful intent displayed here took me aback, and gave me a deeper respect for Michael White and his mastery of pasta.

Sitting at the table behind us was Marc Forgione, himself a respected chef and Kitchen Stadium’s latest deity. As he, too, casually lunched on Osteria Morini’s pasta, I found myself thinking, whom am I to disagree? I will be back to Osteria Morini, and often. The next time I may skip the starters and just get two plates of pasta instead.

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Osteria Morini
218 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012

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  1. k
    kathryn Feb 27, 2011 03:18 PM

    Anybody else been recently?

    9 Replies
    1. re: kathryn
      uhockey Feb 27, 2011 04:31 PM

      Went on 2/20. Will be part of my sprawling list of reviews eventually. Pasta was good - not great - and the service was bad, not average (we're talking bussers attempting to remove your plate before you're done, never getting bread until asking - and even then never getting a plate for the olive oil, empty water glasses, etc.) The MUSSETO was excellent and the Budino quite good as well - but my worst White experience by far (been to Alto, Marea, Convivio when he was in charge - met hime at both Alto and Marea)

      http://uhockey.blogspot.com

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      Convivio
      45 Tudor City Place, New York, NY 10017

      Marea
      240 Central Park South, New York, NY 10019

      1. re: uhockey
        k
        kathryn Feb 28, 2011 06:39 AM

        Thanks! This doesn't bode well for my Saturday night reservation but we'll see. I'll definitely report back.

        1. re: kathryn
          uhockey Feb 28, 2011 12:32 PM

          The food was good - just not great. All in all I liked all White's spots better, all Batali's spots better, Lincoln better, Scarpetta better, and A Voce Columbus better..........ie, pretty much every Italian spot I've tried in New York.

          http://uhockey.blogspot.com

          1. re: uhockey
            k
            kathryn Feb 28, 2011 12:53 PM

            In the last few weeks I've gone to both Locanda Verde and Maialino... so it has a lot to compete with!

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            Locanda Verde
            377 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10013

            Maialino
            2 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10010

            1. re: kathryn
              ChiefHDB Feb 28, 2011 02:07 PM

              Went about two weeks ago. Really enjoyed the seafood salad and a dish with chopped cow's foot, coxcomb and sweetbreads. Also shared the whole dorade special. It was excellent, but a little stingy on the delicious fingerling potatoes and fennel. Really enjoyed my friends' tagliatelle and gnocchi, but my pasta with mushroom ragu was not very interesting (should have gone with the duck liver tortellini).

              Service was fine, but I could see how it might be uneven... took awhile to get bread refills.

            2. re: uhockey
              _emilie_ Feb 28, 2011 02:47 PM

              I was also really underwhelmed. Pasta dishes were just ok, not worth going out of your way for and pretty forgettable (I already DID forget! its been a few months though), and service was awful and obtrusive (too many people milling about -- never at your table when you want them, always there removing plates and bringing you the wrong things when you don't).

              On the otherhand, I just went to Marea and it was really great. I would definitely try his other spots, but this one is a dud. So disappointing -- and I really wanted the one in my neighborhood to be the good one!

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              Marea
              240 Central Park South, New York, NY 10019

        2. re: kathryn
          k
          kathryn Mar 6, 2011 07:21 AM

          Went last night: started with the fried mortadella (tasty), bechamel croquettes (dangerous! molten on the inside!), and the lardo with fried polenta (the last one was my favorite). Continued with mozzarella with grapes which was very good but not really that special (a friend told me she had it with figs -- which sounds tastier to me).

          The tortellini w/ duck liver sauce was better. Looked boring at first, but there was really great pockets of flavor inside each tortellini. Nice cream sauce--not too heavy or buttery, which I'd been afraid of. My husband's lumache with boar ragu with cherries was outstanding, though. It's not on the online menu for some reason. Meaty, game-y, sweet (from the cherries), and a tiny bit of heat at the end. Our friend's garganelli really paled in comparison. We thought the lumache was the best of the three pastas.

          We split the porchetta for the main. Great blistered and crispy skin, delicious pork, served with cabbage and tomatoes. Our friends ordered a special of what the server described as a "veal steak." Arrived pre-sliced, gorgeously cooked. We tried a few bites and it was delicious as well.

          Finished with the chocolate tart with salted caramel. Served with a coffee sorbet. Not too sweet, very very chocolate-y tart, and delicious! So good we ordered two for the four of us.

          With a few cocktails and a beer, it was just under $140 with tax for two.

          The restaurant is very cramped and crowded (just as bad as Babbo's front room) and loud. Nowhere to really wait for your coats if you checked them because the host stand is right up against the front door and bar. The table next to us bumped into my friend two times. Servers and busboys were constantly running into each other but they're definitely working on getting the service to be better, especially the clearing of plates and keeping water refilled, which I found fine.

          I think the only thing that might really keep me away is the crowdedness/noise (really high for the price you're paying), but I might consider dinner at the bar on a weekday.

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          Babbo
          110 Waverly Pl, New York, NY 10011

          1. re: kathryn
            s
            steakrules85 Mar 20, 2011 11:18 PM

            Interesting.... how big was the porchetta since you shared it???

          2. re: kathryn
            s
            snowcone Jan 17, 2012 02:16 PM

            Went Saturday night (Jan 14 2012) and thought the entire experience was mediocre at best. I love Marea and was really excited to try OM especially after reading about its background - an homage to one of Michael White's mentors.
            We arrived on time for our 8PM reservation on a busy Saturday night and we were seated right away by the very friendly and efficient hostess. It took our waiter a while to come by and we ordered two glasses of wine. We had to wait over 10 minutes before our wine was actually poured. He then left us again without taking our order.
            Our table was very cramped next to other guests. Myriad servers, bus people and guests on their way to the restrooms constantly banged in to my DC's chair. That, coupled with the blaring rock music, was not a pleasant ambience.
            The food was medicore at best. My pasta with clams was drowning in its cooking liguid and had tons of sand, either from the clams or the leeks contained within, or both. Very underwhelming dish as well as unappetizing. My DC's Lasagna was okay.
            After having waited way too long to be served a glass of wine, we certainly didn't appreciate having our server try to take our salad away three separate times while we were still eating it. If there was a need to turn the table over, it should have been addressed when we were seated and waited too long for our wine and way too long to place an order. Hate to say it, but we won't be going back.

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            Osteria Morini
            218 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012

          3. p
            peter j Mar 18, 2011 01:10 PM

            Eater NY: "Next Door Expansion Rumored for White's Osteria Morini"
            http://ny.eater.com/archives/2011/03/...

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            Osteria Morini
            218 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012

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