Michael White doesn’t think New Yorkers really know what an osteria is, despite the presence of three in the current Zagat and eight on MenuPages, not to mention the fading memory of Fiamma Osteria, the elegant but in the chef’s opinion misnamed restaurant that he moved here to open eight years ago. Used interchangeably with words like trattoria and ristorante, osteria has become removed from its roots as what White defines as a rustic gathering place—“a place that serves simple food and a place where there’s wine.” Like bistro and brasserie, the term has become meaningless. But when White and his partner Chris Cannon open Osteria Morini in Soho next month, celebrating the famously rich cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, the chef promises, “It’s going to mean something.” It will mean something especially to White himself, as the name honors the chef’s mentor and onetime boss, Gianluigi Morini, founder of Imola’s San Domenico, the restaurant outside Emilia-Romagna’s capital city, Bologna, where the Wisconsin native worked for seven years, met his wife, subsisted on bowls of tagliatelle, and metamorphosed into his culinary alter ego, Chef Bianco. The hyperrefined San Domenico itself might not be an osteria, but White and Cannon, who operate the decidedly un-osteria-like Alto, Convivio, and Marea, are determined that Morini will be. They’ve enlisted Italian architect Franco Rossignolo to thoroughly rusticate the gutted space—home, at various times, to a Prohibition-era speakeasy, Tom Valenti’s Cascabel, and the ignominious Falls—and layer it with salvaged materials and flea-market finds to evoke what Cannon describes as “an ancient truck stop, a diner from 300 years ago.”
It’s a rare diner, though, that stocks its larder with prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and genuine balsamico—the prized natural resources of the culinary Shangri-la that is Emilia-Romagna, also home to iconic pastas like tortellini, tortelloni, and lasagne alla Bolognese. Butter, cream, and eggs factor heavily, as does pork. “In Emilia-Romagna,” says Cannon, “one of the major food groups is mortadella.”
To develop the wine list, Cannon spent a lot of time swirling and sniffing at the Flatiron district’s Via Emilia, whose owner, William Mattiello, is probably the city’s, if not the country’s, foremost advocate for the fizzy Emilia-Romagnan wine Lambrusco—the perfect foil for the region’s fatty meats and rich sauces. “Americans don’t really get it,” says Cannon, who plans to stock almost 30, in addition to “amazing whites” from Liguria and Le Marche, plus selections from Umbria, Lombardy, and Tuscany.
When dinner service starts, half the 100 or so seats will be available by reservation and the rest for walk-ins. But breakfast and lunch will launch first, allowing New Yorkers to start the day with pastry chef Heather Bertinetti’s raspberry bomboloni and pancetta-cipollini-Gorgonzola scones. We can’t wait to see what 300-year-old truck-stop coffee tastes like.