TYPE: Regional Italian
VIBE: Rustic trattoria OCCASION: A date, bar dining, or hip group gathering DON’T MISS DISH: Braised sea bream with tomatoes & olives DON’T BOTHER DISH: Simply couldn’t find one – a first DRINK SPECIALTY: Italian wines by the glass, carafe and bottle. PRICE: $60 & up HOURS: Open seven days a week, 8 AM – midnight. INSIDE SCOOP: Primeal fresco dining in the warmer months
RESERVATIONS: Reservations highly recommended, RESTAURANT GIRL RATES: 8 on food, 8.5 on scene
FINAL WORD: Who would’ve thought French-fixated McNally could nail rustic Italian? He does and the West Village landscape – a sceney bonus.
It’s no secret Keith McNally knows how to build restaurant institutions – Balthazar, Pastis and Schiller’s Liquor Bar – that will perhaps outlive McNally himself. But just what makes this British-born restaurateur think he can master the art of Italian? Morandi seems not your average attempt to expand a restaurant empire, crossing over into Italy’s borders for novelty’s sake, but instead a highly calculated Jody Williams-watching expedition around NYC (Il Buco, Giorgone and Gusto). After successfully squiring the chef, her grocery bag of tricks in tote, the two set up camp on a prime West Village corner. Hell, with Balthazar’s steak tartare and Pastis’ french fries – who wouldn’t follow him anywhere?
An almost palpable yellow glow pervades the warm space fashioned with all the usual McNally trimmings: distressed wood tables, antique mirrors and brick arches. My one gripe – curiously low ceilings well-suited for a family of dwarves. The lively buzz of a full, but not packed house makes Morandi a perfectly stylish, yet unassuming place to see and be seen.
MENU Morandi indulges crowd pleasers like spaghetti with clams, fritto misto and meatballs – meatballs so familiar that I’d actually had the pleasure of their acquaintance during Jody’s stint at Gusto. In fact, many of “Jody’s signatures” are happily sprinkled about the menu: pasta spiked with sardines, radicchio paired with smoked scamorza and grilled octopus with celery & olives. Why mess with successful and unfussy fare? Don’t get me wrong. Jody doesn’t rest on her laurels, instead she chooses to explore regional Italian dishes: (coda alla vaccinara) roman-style oxtail stew and pizzoccheri (Lombardian rye pasta).
Let’s start with the basics: a deceptively simply grilled radicchio terrifically paired with a firm & smoky scamorza cheese or fried olives, apparently code for breaded pork meatballs, each one marked with a lively green olive. Practically transluscent bass carpaccio was lifted by a glossy sheath of salsa verde, dotted with red peppers and green olives. I haven’t even gotten to the crusty raisin-studded meatballs with pine nuts on a bright tomato sauce. Browned to near burnt perfection, the meatballs managed to be crunchy on the outside, moist and meaty within.
We made a mid-course out of the homemade pizzocheri, a beyond rustic bowl of wafer- thin rye flour ribbons bathing in a creamy pool of speck and fontina cheese; the unusual and mushy texture did require some patience, but grew to become strangely soothing. I was most charmed by a white wine-soaked sea bream, which arrived braised and coated in a tomato sauce with capers, potatoes and the seemingly ever-present green olive. Anyone noticing a green olive fetish? I’m just throwing it out there.
While it’s unlikely you’ll have room (portions are not small), linger over dessert and perhaps a cocktail. The francelli – rum shaken with lemon and fig jam – is worth investigating as well as the dark-chocolate covered fresh persimmon, which accompany a plate of walnut-stuffed figs. Ditto on the guests, an eclectic mix of the hip downtown set, suits, celebrities and even the wizard behind this new Italian joint – McNally.
My one grievance with Morandi (other than the ceiling issue); the near impossibility of ever getting a reservation again.
Until we eat again,
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