“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 celebratory spirit at Morini
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.
White, chef from Wisconsin with an Italian soul
|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.
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
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
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.
wine director Nadine Proctor with
server/wine steward Ryan Manna
Others members of the Morini team (left to
Therese Drew,host; Phillip
Buttacavolli, assistant general
manager; Robert Marchart, host; Frank Botta, general manager
“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.’
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
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
Phone: 212 965 8777
Photographs by Harvey Frommer
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights