White's Morini Fattens Soho Skinnies With Cream, Lard, Pasta: Ryan Sutton
Finishing a bowl of Osteria Morini’s braised beef ravioli by yourself is like drinking an entire magnum of Barolo wine.
The pasta is sauced in buttery pan drippings so concentrated they shimmer like glass. It’s fine shared with friends and consumed at a leisurely pace. Tackle it solo, however, and suffer the consequences.
Such are the head-spinning effects of this heavy fare by Michael White, the cherub-faced, 6-foot-4-inch tall Midwesterner who looks more like an NFL lineman than an Italian chef.
His latest, maybe gutsiest move is opening a restaurant dedicated to fat in Soho, a Manhattan neighborhood where skinny foodies don’t have any.
Morini puts out mortadella “corn dogs” (delicious), fried polenta with pork fat (even better), slices of “white prosciutto” (pure lardo) and bowls of affogato so large the dense frozen-custard drowned in espresso could sub for a 1,000 calorie Dairy Queen milkshake.
There are two vegetable soups. Neither is vegetarian. Seven of ten meat-based entrees involve some form of pork.
This is all a chubby American take on the traditional cream-themed cuisine of Emilia-Romagna in Northern Italy, whose lipids of choice come from animals more often than olives.
Such are the quirks of White’s first casual restaurant, a good, if somewhat uneven spot with paper placemats, paper napkins and Italian farmhouse wood. Sound absorbing tablecloths? No way. Artwork? Of course; photos of celebrities (Bill Cosby smoking a cigar) hang about.
The wine list isn’t unbalanced with over-priced, over- extracted Super Tuscans, but instead offers a wide selection of Lambruscos; some will assail the sparkling reds as “pizza- cola.” More discerning guests will find the grapey, bubbly concoctions a refreshing counterpoint to bechamel croquettes (which taste like fried mayo).
White has made a name with fancier affairs like Marea, with its seafood and pasta tasting menus; Convivio, the bastion of high-end Southern Italian and Alto, the refined take on Northern Italy. They espouse the Michelin four-course approach to dining -- an appetizer from the antipasto menu, pasta, entree and dessert.
Morini’s chief departure is that it sometimes espouses the old-school “one plate should fill you up.”
Before the ravioli I began working my way through a ramekin of what appeared to be breadcrumbs. Those soft morsels had soaked up the natural gelatins of calves’ feet. Cockscomb and sweet breads added more meatiness. It’s an outstanding dish for hibernating bears and ensured that dessert was not an option -- a good thing because panna cotta, which should tremble with delicacy, was as dense as a gumdrop.
There are a few somewhat lighter items: paper-thin-slices of fat-flanked prosciutto; ethereal truffle custard topped with mushrooms ($14); a little ramekin of creamy duck liver mouse ($13).
White enriches his noodles with wanton amounts of cholesterol. At Marea, he relaxes the pucker of tomato sauce with bone marrow. That same sense of balance isn’t present at Morini, where firm garganelli, soft gnocchi and porky tortellini drown in an overdose of cream.
A piping-hot crock of baked polenta, a goopy mess with stracchino cheese and sausage, has the texture and taste of overcooked baked manicotti from a local pizza joint.
The better call is a beefy tagliatelle Bolognese, or shell- shaped noodles called creste; they soak up a warm, tomato-spiked mussel broth. Marea’s $48 seafood soup appears in a $28 version here and the maritime essence is no less powerful.
Pyromaniacs and fans of cable cooking shows will appreciate the kitchen’s fiery brick oven and rotisserie. The devices produced a porchetta with leathery skin and blubbery fat; skewered pork suffered the same fate. White is responsible for an equally leathery, underseasoned pork chop, but nails a crispy baby chicken, perfumed by a bed of bitter Brussels sprouts and smoky pancetta.
Morini’s $84 porterhouse for two is a respectable version with a dose of rosemary and olive oil to make it Italian. It’s OK.
But really. As White prepares for the opening of Ai Fiori in Midtown’s Setai hotel (his second restaurant of the year), he should ease up on the cholesterol and make Morini the excellent restaurant it deserves to be. Italian is a very crowded field in New York these days.
The Bloomberg Questions
Prices: Most dishes under $30.
Sound Level: Around 75; loud but hardly deafening.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside tip: Drink Lambrusco. Lots of it.
Special Feature: Killer pumpkin and zabaglione gelati.
Will I be back: Often for cold cuts and wine.
Osteria Morini is at 218 Lafayette Street, near Kenmare. Information: +1-212-965-8777 or http://www.osteriamorini.com
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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