That's Morini. Not Morandi. As in, Morandi, where I actually MADE the 7:30pm reservation for two but showed up where I intended to have done so, at Morini, Michael White's only NYC restaurant to which, at that point, I had not yet dined. So I waited for my dining companion, who was happily slinging back cocktails waiting for ME at Keith McNally's similarly named establishment. Thanks to the absolutely gracious and charming and uber-accomodating waitstaff at Morini, we were seated briskly after my friend hightailed the cross-town commute: a fine example of White's omnipresent excellence of staff. Also suits the name, as "osteria" derives from hospitality. Here, though, it is the service that elevates the experience, rather than then food.
WHICH, I must say, was across-the-board fine. But of White, I've come to expect an almost magical quality, and perhaps I overshot my expectations for this much more humble, rustic of his establishments. But cozy it is, and the rough-hewn woodwork and glowy lighting create a perfect ambiance for blustery winter eves. Our server presented menus with a dazzling smile, and when I screwed up ordering the artichoke fritelle, he swiftly brought a replacement arugula salad without blinking an eye. The fritelle, to be fair, were perfectly serviceable fritters, but the artichoke in them was indetectable, instead tasting only of chickpea and red bell pepper, aided by a zippy nepitella crema- a rare Tuscan herb with a pronounced minty-herby flavor. But since starving-me ordered them errantly expecting carciofi alla romagna (this IS a Roman-style osteria, after all), they weren't at all what I had my taste buds set on. The arugula, on the other hand, was a bountiful, predictable salad of peppery greens, a strange paucity of sliced mushrooms and thinly sliced parmesan, but perfectly edible. The insalata mista, however, was almost embarrassing ... as if White was trying to dissuade one from ordering anything so banal as a green salad. Romaine and raddichio with a forgettable vinaigrette, and looked a lot like a generic side salad at some mall food court.
But things improved a little with the entrees: my monkfish was the star of the night. And as if to make up for ordering something so "dietetic" as a white fish in this burly eatery, two enormous medallions arrived perched on a savory bed of lentils and lardons, garnished with the current chef's darling: baby celery leaves. Literally, one of those pieces of fish was bigger than what you'd find
in most any upscale-ish restaurant in Manhattan, in total weighing over 10 ounces.
They dwarfed the grilled lamb blade, blanketed in strips of fried peppers and gently reminiscent of Mulberry Street. They were perfectly cooked and just gamey enough, but not much more than good lamb with peppers and onions. It just seemed a little simple... to a fault. And despite the enormity of my entree, I am physically incapable of turning down brussels sprouts if they present themselves, and these were welcome specimens. Their brilliant green inspired fear of under-cooking, but instead, emerged tender and flavorful, mingling with a meaty cubes of pancetta and soft bits of onion, resulting in no leftover sprouts to accompany the monkfish that would doggy-bag its way home with me.
Now, while I'm glad I ended up at Morini instead of Morandi (don't even get me STARTED with Morsini and Marea), I didn't find it profoundly better than Morandi, which is a restaurant that is totally fine... but it's no Michael White place. Morini is better, yes, but not profoundly better. Truth be told, the finest treasure I found at Morini was the maitre d', Damon Kornhauser, who I hear is soon departing. Because it was his hospitality that set Morini apart from any other solid Italian joint. If it's true, I hope the food returns to its original worthiness when he exits, if only just to make up for his absence.
218 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10012