218 Lafayette Street, New York NY 10012 (map); 212-965-8777
Service: Very friendly and attentive.
Setting: Simple and homey, but classy.
Must-Haves: Mare, Porchetta Carpaccio, Tortellini
Cost: Appetizers $10-16, Entrees $20-29
Grade: A-. Near perfect pasta (provided you order the right one), and excellent, if salty entrees.
A one-question Italian food pop quiz: What's the difference between an osteria, a trattoria, and a ristorante? The answer can be found at the end of this review. But we've found ourselves unable to care at Osteria Morini, the new restaurant of prodigiously talented Italian chef-restaurateur Michael White (he of the unfortunate, decidedly un-Italian, white bread-y surname).
White, who has generated some controversy recently in the intensely competitive New York Italian chef hierarchy by throwing down the "time spent cooking full-time in Italy" gauntlet, is putting his pasta-making skills where his mouth is by opening Osteria Morini, an "authentic" osteria serving the insanely rich and meat-centric food of Emilia-Romagna. White actually spent seven years in Italy cooking there at San Domenico, the restaurant owned by the venerated Valentino Marcattili. His promise: to introduce New Yorkers to what a "real" osteria is supposed to be, because apparently, nobody else has done it yet.
But we're not particularly interested in the nuances of Italian restaurant tradition, or claims of superior authenticity. Osteria, trattoria, ristorante, Italian diner, whatever—we actually don't care about any of this whose-pizza-paddle-is-longest macho posturing. All we care about is this: Is the food on the plate any good? That's what we went to Osteria Morini to find out.
Comfortably relaxed at lunch, one could easily imagine the hard-surfaced, square-walled space being uncomfortably loud during a packed dinner service (as we are told the restaurant is every night). Counter service near the entrance gives the restaurant a feel that co-owner Chris Cannon has described as "like a truckstop from 300 years ago." It's got the clean comfort of Maialino without the fancy airs, and the convivial, laid-back atmosphere of Locanda Verde without the hipness. In other words, our kind of space.
Chef White expressly stated that he's not out to reinvent the wheel here, and the first course of meatballs ($10) are a perfect example. As tender and light as you could hope for with a strong, savory cheese flavor, they gave us no complaints, though nothing made them particularly special.
The seafood salad ($13/23), on the other hand, was about as good as good as it gets. Perfectly cooked, the scallop, shrimp, octopus, and squid mix is tossed with a simple lemon vinaigrette. We appreciated the brininess and crispness that the olives and celery, respectively, brought to the table. Equally light were the meat-based appetizers. The rolled-and-roasted in-house porchetta (roasted seasoned pork loin, $12) becomes ethereally light in expert hands. It was served with a bright salad of arugula, shaved fennel, and radishes. Proof that oversimplifying is rarely a problem when it comes to ingredients this fantastic. The tartare of beef was bright and flavorful, though the truffle oil became overbearing after the first whiff. Next time we'll ask for it without.
Pasta is where Michael White's talents come out in full force. His restaurant made the tortellini that we've previously named the best in New York, and we're happy to report that his reputation remains solid. They keep four different varieties of flour on hand with which they make various doughs depending on the final shape of the pasta. Stuffed pastas, like the tortellini ($15, here they come stuffed with veal and mortadella in a creamy duck-liver sauce) rely on high-gluten "OO" Italian flour, while straight pastas use more tender semolina.
Rich and bright yellow with egg yolks, the OO pasta retains a satisfying chewiness that's often missing from stuffed pastas. The gramigna ($14) was similarly perfectly textured, with a simple-yet-comforting tomato-based meat sauce. The only pasta snafu of the meal was the gnocchi ($13), which were denser than we'd have liked and sauced with an overly sweet smooth tomato sauce.
Thus far, our meal had been feather-light. That was about to change.
The mixed grill for two ($25/single) was an unabashedly blatant meat-fest, enough to serve three easily. Asides from salt, pepper, and a few herbs and spices here and there, nothing gets in the way of the meat save for a squeeze of lemon. Here's what we had: Skirt steak (phenomenal), Lamb (undercooked/raw), homemade fennel sausage (perfect texture and flavor, though extraordinarily salty), and grilled pork belly (better-than-bacon). We could have easily downed an all-skirt-steak version of the dish, though the saltiness was almost overwhelming—and we're not shy when it comes to salt!
We got a peek into the kitchen and saw them prepping the tiny, 1 1/2 to 2-pound chickens ($19) for service. It's a great portion size that lets you eat half a chicken without popping a button. Whether it's the quality of the birds or the cooks, both the light and dark meat came out crisp, flavorful, and juicy, though a few of us found the skin and sauteed spinach to be a little salty. Bread-crumb covered roasted tomatoes were about as fine an example of this retro side dish as you could expect, which is to say, meh. Why does anyone continue to make these, much less revive them?
The best bite of the meal was the skwered chunks of grilled Hampshire pork shoulder ($22). They were served unapologetically medium rare—just warm enough to start melting their insanely-marbled interior. Wrapped in a bit of guanciale, they were melt-in-your-mouth tender and over-the-top porky.
Osteria Morini? So far, you've proven delicious. Let's see how the dessert stacks up.
$11 for three small scoops of gelato seems steep, even for SoHo, and if the gelato were unspeakably fantastic, it would have been worth the price. Unfortunately, the flavors were hit or miss. The pistachio was supremely creamy with an almost herbal flavor, and the hazelnut-caramel packed about as much hazelnut flavor as you could imagine into a single frozen bite, but most of the other flavors fell flat with inconsistent texture (we found a few ice shards here and there). Much better was the classic pannacotta ($11). Pannacotta has the tendency to become either gummy or greasy tasting when not made with care. This one was neither. Tender and light on the palate, it's nevertheless far too large for a single serving—order one to share.
So does Osteria Morini win the prize as the most authentic osteria in New York? We're not out to judge. Osteria Morini serves a great deal of seriously delicious Italian food at mostly moderate prices (given that the desserts are too expensive). We'll let the chefs and the restaurateurs fight it out for the authenticity heavyweight crown. In the meantime, we'll be slurping the tortellini and the various crazy good pork products sold at Osteria Morini and enjoying the hell out of our lunches there. Dinner may, at this moment, be a little too crazy for our blood.
An Osteria was originally the Italian equivalent of a pub—a place for a glass of wine, a wedge of bread, a bite to eat. Trattorias served simpler meals in a local style, and were often family run; a Ristorante was a more formal restaurant. Today, distinctions blur, but they still follow approximately the same scale of formality.