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.
218 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012