The first sign there may be something slightly off about Keith McNally’s newest restaurant isn’t necessarily the choice of culinary genre (casual Italian instead of the usual casual French). It isn’t the room, which contains a bar area the size of a horse stall and is so low-slung it feels like you’re dining in the really loud basement of some semi-prosperous Tuscan peasant. It isn’t even the restaurant’s semi-obscure name, Morandi, inspired by the semi-obscure painter Giorgio Morandi. The real sign of trouble is the restaurant’s location, on a little crook of Waverly Place, at Seventh Avenue. McNally has a genius for placing his restaurants in the right neighborhood. In fact, the different outposts of his French-bistro empire (Odeon in Tribeca, Balthazar in Soho, Pastis in the meatpacking district, Schiller’s on the Lower East Side) have helped define their neighborhoods. But this shabby border region of the Village isn’t really a neighborhood at all, and Morandi’s location, next to the careening downtown traffic, seems to be lacking McNally’s signature touch.
Of course, at this point in McNally’s impressive career, it probably doesn’t matter where he situates his restaurants. The great franchiser of facile, casually racy Euro-style dining could open a brasserie in the Rockaways and people would still show up in their glittering limousines. Plenty of people are certainly showing up at Morandi. I never glimpsed an empty table during my evening visits (for peace and quiet, go at lunch), and the cramped bar area was always brimming with a sea of expectant faces. Indeed, the room, with its close ceiling and buffed brick walls, seems designed to convey a feeling of busyness and density. Small distressed-wood chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and the walls are lined with thatched bottles of Chianti. Sitting at the tiny wooden tables, everyone tends to hunch forward like guests at some diminutive, Hobbit-size ball. This may not be such a bad thing, since the noise in the room reaches such bedlam levels that to ask your neighbor for the salt, you must yell like a lunatic at the top of your lungs.
McNally’s singular contribution to the Zeitgeist is, of course, the faux French brasserie meal, which he helped introduce, in the eighties, at Odeon, then perfected at Balthazar. But Italian food is not news to New Yorkers, and there’s not much on the menu at Morandi that any restaurant hound hasn’t seen a hundred times before. The chef is Jody Williams, who specializes in the trendy art of wood-oven cooking, most recently at a trendy little restaurant called Gusto in the West Village. But this is a trendy big restaurant, and the demands on the kitchen are more extreme. Maybe that’s why I tended to like the smaller, less complicated items better, like the salty fritto misto containing crunchy, fresh head-on shrimp, and the frizzled artichokes served with their stalks, just like in Rome. There’s a nice bruschetta too, drizzled with sheep’s-milk ricotta, as well as piles of richly wet burrata with roasted peppers and tenderized octopus served over layers of salty black olives and cool celery.
Scrunched in our little Hobbit chairs, yelling at each other between bites, my tasters and I also plowed through some very nice salads, particularly the one made with endive, walnuts, apple, and shavings of Parmesan. But as the bigger dishes began to rain down on the tiny, overburdened table, complaints began to be heard. A too-vinegary antipasto portion of skate with pine nuts tasted “like sweet-and-sour pork” (it did, sort of), the heavy, overly lemony pici pasta was “inedible” (it was, sort of), and the bucatini all’amatriciana contained plenty of wholesome pork jowl, but also a tasteless “sludge” of tomato sauce (it did). Given McNally’s mania for exact imitation, it’s a surprise that many of the pasta dishes are executed with a similarly heavy hand. Everyone liked the gooey “pizzoccheri” (a mingling of buckwheat pasta, speck, and melty Bitto cheese), but the eggy tagliatelle I sampled seized up after a few minutes like a bowl of wet cement, and the spaghetti in my spaghetti alle vongole seemed to taste faintly of dish soap.
This kind of sloppiness is less noticeable among the entrées, provided you stick to the heavier, more straight-ahead stuff. My chef friend pushed aside his portion of milk-cooked baccalà with a weary sigh (“Is salt cod ever good?” he asked), but found time to pick at the generously sized scallops, smothered in a rich lemon-caper sauce, and the branzino, which is grilled whole and served with a mess of overly wilted greens. If you have to choose between the grilled chicken and the slightly gnarly “lardo roasted” rabbit, go with the chicken, which is flattened and flavored with more lemons. The hanger steak is charred in a similarly straightforward, satisfying way (it’s drizzled with a rich, oily mix of anchovies and garlic), and so is the well-aged Florentine-style porterhouse ($72 for two), which rests on a mound of softly crisp potatoes flavored with rosemary and chunks of garlic. If you order just one of these carnivore specials, however, make it the big, softball-size (and, at $45, not inexpensive) veal chop, stuffed with melted Fontina cheese and crowned with ribbons of prosciutto.