So, what do you do for an encore if you’re Michael White? Over the past three years, no chef in the city has been on a more impressive run than the great pasta savant from the wilds of Wisconsin. While his competitors in the upper echelons of Italian cooking have been opening populist food halls and desperately concocting recipes for meatball sliders, White and his partners have been launching one ambitious high-profile hit restaurant after the next. First came the Northern Italian establishment Alto, which White turned, more or less overnight, into one of the top five Italian restaurants in town; then came the popular Tudor City pasta destination Convivio. Last year, in the teeth of the Great Recession, when restaurants all over were furiously battening down the hatches, they opened the grandiose (and, except by me, lavishly praised) midtown seafood palace Marea, where White demonstrated his facility with more-refined ingredients like lobster tails, dainty fish crudi, and caviar.
Now, with his latest venture, the omnivorous, multitalented White comes full circle, back to the kind of accessible, unadorned, carefully rusticated Italian cooking that he professes to love the best. But his new restaurant, Osteria Morini, which opened not long ago among the nightclubs and lounge-lizard taco stands on Lafayette Street in Soho, isn’t just another faux taverna with pictures of jolly Italian chefs on the walls (although it has plenty of those). In classic White form, it’s a painstakingly reproduced homage—this time to the cooking of Emilia-Romagna, one of Italy’s great eating regions—replete with burnt-orange terra-cotta façade and potted cypress trees outside the door. The name refers to the owner of the famous San Domenico restaurant in Imola, near Bologna, where White worked for seven years. The photos on the wall are from restaurants around Bologna. The blocky, farm-style tables and chairs were built for the restaurant in Emilia-Romagna itself. Even the wooden rafters in the ceiling were imported from an actual Italian farmhouse.
“Incoming!” cried one of the startled guests at my table, as the first salvo of impeccably realized Bolognese fatso foods came thudding down on our tabletop like little zeppelins raining from the sky. There were chewy slices of pork neck (coppa) on our sturdy butcher board, glistening shavings of rosemary-infused lardo, and ribbons of mortadella studded with squares of pearly, dissolving fat. There were absurdly rich croquettes filled with molten deposits of béchamel (which, if you believe the menu, is a favorite street food among the portly Bolognese), delicious little pots of sformato (egg custard) mingled with braised mushrooms and truffles, and crocks of braised coxcombs, which the kitchen gilds with strips of softly braised pork trotter for extra effect. The lightest of these not-so-light dishes was the mozzarella (milky fresh, with ripe figs), and the best of all, arguably, was the seafood salad, which is made with bountiful amounts of calamari and fresh scallops and tossed with capers, olives, and plenty of lemon juice.
These nourishing treats were followed to the table by White’s generally impeccable pastas, all of which are culled from the extensive Emilia-Romagna canon. The chef has a flair for the earthy sauces and ragùs of this pasta-mad region, but his real genius is with the pastas themselves. There are melting, ricotta-infused gnocchi; chewy, macaroni-like creste (named for the rooster’s crest) folded with mussels and shrimp; and deliciously plump cappelletti dumplings that the kitchen douses with butter and bits of prosciutto and stuffs with vaporous deposits of mascarpone laced with the faint, woodsy taste of truffles. The slippery mezzalune “parcels” I sampled were perfectly constructed and packed with flavor (they’re filled with heirloom squash and splashed with brown butter), and the vivid, yolky-colored tagliatelle are covered with a complex, classically dense veal-and-pork ragù, which only gets denser and more satisfying and complex (the way classic Bolognese ragùs tend to do) as you get to the bottom of the bowl.
“I think I’m having a food aneurysm,” murmured my wife in meek, slightly stricken tones as the pastas were cleared away and our entrées loomed on the horizon. The chunk of the wine-glazed short rib she ordered did nothing to alleviate this condition, of course, and neither did a surprisingly listless veal cutlet, which was layered with strips of prosciutto cotto, Parmesan, and too much truffled cream. After the fireworks of the early courses, in fact, many of the entrées at Osteria Morini had a leaden, slightly anticlimactic feel. The old barnyard standards I sampled (country chicken roasted with rosemary, a thick Duroc pork chop served with polenta, onions, and balsamic) were diligently cooked but unspectacular. Ditto the seafood dishes, like roast shrimp (wrapped, superfluously, in more lardo), and a soupy, oversalted version of brodetto stew. If you have the constitution for it, however, the steaks are hearty and well grilled (order the rib eye), and the crackly rendition of porchetta (crunchy gold outside, rubbed with lemon and herbs within) is one of the best in town.
Because the tables in the narrow room are set very close together, and because White is almost too hot these days for his own good (his next new restaurant, Ai Fiori, is scheduled to open in the Setai Fifth Avenue Hotel at the end of this month), Osteria Morini can feel cramped and even a little riotous on crowded evenings. But the long dining counter at the front of the room is an excellent place for a peaceful trencherman’s lunch, and if you go on the weekends for brunch, you’ll find all sorts of savory delicacies on the menu, including weighty little scones studded with bits of pancetta. The carefully chosen Italian wines are less aggressively priced than in the uptown restaurants, and the blessedly simple, osteria-style desserts are a soothing counterpoint to the general richness of dinner. The smooth panna cotta has a comforting effect on the stomach, and if you need something to shock you from your food coma, I suggest the affogato, which is short on ice cream, long on espresso, and served in a glass as tall as a milkshake’s.