“Before we came here, this was just a bar; we transported everything in six containers – most of it from my sister- in law’s great-grandfather’s farmhouse in Emilia Romagna.” So said Michael White, resplendent in his chef’s whites, in bustling, booming Osteria da Morini in the heart of bustling, booming Soho. It was a Wednesday evening, two days before the onset of Passover, four days before Easter Sunday. But, for the moment, no one seemed to be thinking ahead. There was no need to ask the question that would be posed at every seder: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” as the scene has been the same every night since the big, open dining room on Lafayette Street first opened last October to a full house and a celebratory spirit.
And there before us, was the man himself. The one we’d been longing to meet, having become a pair of Michael White groupies after experiencing two of his restaurants over the past few months: first the power-broker scene at Marea on Central Park South, then Ai Fiori, the dream-like dining room in the Hotel Setai, virtually across the way from where the old B. Altman’s once stood.
Now it was Osteria da Morini . Three restaurants opening, one after the other, in the space of a little more than a year. Each an act and atmosphere unto itself, except for the sharing of a single passion: the tastes of Italy.
“I didn’t want Restoration Hardware,” Michael continued. “There’s too much of it in New York. Look around this room, the cupboards are all from the house. The table you’re seated at is from Bologna (capital city of Emilio Romagna, the region that cuts a diagonal swath across northern Italy ending at the Adriatic coast). It’s made from reclaimed wood. The chairs are from Trieste. The paneling on the ceiling comes from the farmhouse. So does the floor. It’s unfinished terra cotta; we picked it up, tile by tile,.” He smiled and took a breath as we took in the rustic setting. “We want to make sure the experience from top to bottom is Italian,” he said.
At first you’re skeptical, but ultimately you take Michael at his word when he tells you he is actually of Norwegian descent, was born and grew up in Wisconsin. But he lived in Italy for more than seven years, is married to an Italian woman . . . What can one say? Deep within this corpulent, charismatic Midwesterner breathes an Italian soul.
You get the same feeling about everyone on the Morini team. Our server, Ryan Manna, tells us he’s half Irish and half Italian. He’s also a wine steward. “Let me start you off with a Lambrusco, the most famous grape from Emilia Romagna,” he says and pours the deep, rose-colored Lambrusco di i Sarbare 2009 into a pair of round stem-less glasses. We take a sip. It’s slightly effervescent, tart and dry and quite marvelous. The experience is akin to having a glass of champagne before dinner, only in the comfort of your home or, better yet, in an osteria, – which means an extension of the owner, and that is, we’re beginning to understand, what it’s all about.
“Lambrusco is both grape and style of wine,” Ryan adds. “The name refers to two different kinds of grapes. Now I’d like you to try Lambrusco dell Emilia ‘Pronto Rinaldi.’
It’s darker with a richer texture and fuller body. Also more stable, better suited for a main course.”
The first pair of glasses was still on the table when this darkly purple, aromatic vintage was poured. By the time we left, half a dozen more were taking up space, including some stems, like the ones that held the smooth Chianti Classico Bucciarelli from bordering Tuscany which, with its strong body, was almost like a deep and dark Burgundy.
In between glasses of wine that increased in density, Ryan managed to slip in platters containing the foods of a Bolognese dinner prepared by Michael and his crew. There was a soup of white beans and spring onions with black pepper and lemon oil served with crostini – a harbinger of spring made possible so early in the season by the warm winter that had just passed. There were slices of cured beef seasoned with salt, black pepper and juniper. And in a small round bowl, filled to its brim, a paté of chicken liver glazed with Marsala for just a touch of sweetness. This was not a dish one could merely taste and move on. Cholesterol concerns were thrown to the wind until every last morsel was finished.
Crusty calamari, breaded lightly and seared a la plancha on an iron skillet, came with little tomatoes and lemon confit. There followed a serving of fresh mackerel (we realized we’d never had fresh mackerel before; it was so good) with radicchio adding a bit of bitterness. And then we were on to the pastas.
Twelve kinds of pasta are listed on the large and detailed Morini menu; each is made by hand. Both of us had quills – one dish came with cream, radicchio, truffle butter, prosciutto and peas, the other with baby artichokes and spring lamb which — flavored with sage and mint — was spring-like, very of the moment. And then there was a tender sirloin. The meat may have come from Kansas, but together with artichokes and white bean puree, bone marrow and grilled ramps (wild leeks), it ended up being the product of a Bolognese imagination.
For us, dinner at Morini was an adventure in the delights of the unexpected. Even down to what looked like simple pound cake but actually was made with olive oil, topped with fresh cream and accompanied by ricotta gelato and tart rhubarb on the side. Rhubarb – another harbinger of spring. “Everything has come early this year,” Ryan said as he placed a milk chocolate/hazelnut custard with chocolate chip gelato and pear poached in Lambrusco before us. And we realized we had come full circle.
“I don’t want this restaurant to be a special occasion place,” Michael had said. “I want it to be the kind of place you come to any time for Bolognese-style food in a comfortable atmosphere. My motto for the place is ‘truffles in blue jeans.’ “Last week a couple from London came here,” he went on. “They also have a house in Tuscany, and they told me ‘There aren’t places like this any more. The young people in Italy, they want new, new, new. Osterias are dying out.”
Clearly, that’s not what’s happening here. Judging from what the baseball writer among us calls the “triple header” of Marea, Ai Fiori, and now Osteria da Morini, Michael White’s impact on New York’s restaurant scene is just in its opening innings.
Osteria da Morini
218 Lafayette Street
New York, N.Y. 10013
212 965 8777
Photographs by Harvey Frommer