Osteria Morini: A Bad Restaurant with Great Food
I’m going to cut to the chase: Michael White’s casual dining spot in Soho, Osteria Morini, is somewhat of a hot mess. Despite the generally excellent food that White is known for at his other restaurants (Marea, and the now defunct Alto and Convivio), there are so many flaws in the design of Morini and how the restaurant is run that it’s hard to truly love this place.
Located on the Soho triangle where Lafayette and Centre converge at Spring Street, Morini doesn’t look like much from the outside. Peering through the door, it looks leaden and dark, unfriendly. On the inside however, it’s aggressively rustic, to the point of seeming chintzy and faux. The tables are heavy and wooden, the sort of thing you’d see in the ‘Rustic Home’ section of a Raymour & Flanigan competitor; while aesthetically-pleasing, if you’re into the whole country kitchen look, they are ridiculously tall; thus, unless you’re a giant, the table is just too tall to eat at comfortably. Further, all of the dining chairs are supposed to be ‘ artfully mis-matched’ in shades of mint green, white and brown, yet the overall affect is a forced ‘countryside-in-Manhattan’ style that looks just plain matchy-matchy. The rest of the decor is typical farmhouse-chic: copper pots and antique cooking utensils, old photographs, wooden hutches displaying Italian kitsch, mini pots of fresh flowers on each table. Perhaps the most distracting thing about Osteria Morini though is the noise; it is unbelievably noisy, starting at a low hum early in the night and rapidly rising to a full-on roar by 7:30pm. Who designs a restaurant without taking into account the acoustics? Such excessive noise can really ruin a meal.
In fact, Osteria Morini was so loud that our waitress could not understand what we were ordering and had to repeat everything we said to verify she got it right. Perhaps the staff’s constant exposure to loud noises is the reason why they were borderline incompetent. Although our waitress was mostly friendly, both she and the bus boys rushed me and my friend Julie through our meal. Half way through every single course, we were asked whether we wanted our food cleared, even though it was clear that we were still eating. At one point, a bus boy tried to take away an as-of-yet untouched appetizer and when we said no, proceeded to snag my friend’s bowl of soup out from under her and clear her starter course silverware. She had to ask for it back to finish her food.
Part of me wishes I could just write Osteria Morini off the map for its obvious annoyances, yet unfortunately for me and fortunately for it, the food is actually quite wonderful. At Morini, Michael White demonstrates his facility with the cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, churning out soulful and hearty dishes without a whole lot of fuss. There are the requisite cured meats and cheeses, one of which, a special on the night I visited, was utterly marvelous: aged nutty Parmesan, served in thick nuggets with a slice of pickled pear, a dollop of poached date, and soft fruit & nut bread. The antipasti options are extensive: fluffy ricotta with spring peas and pesto, creamy duck liver mousse crostini, mozzarella di bufala with figs and saba, marinated olives, and so forth. Perhaps the best though is the house meatballs, a savory blend of mortadella and prosciutto, baked in a wonderfully thick, salty and flavorful tomato gravy (particularly good for sopping up with crusty bread).
Morini offers a number of entrees, such as roasted hampshire pork with sage, roasted baby chicken with brussels sprouts, or a sangiovese-braised short rib, but the ‘primi’ pastas are where the real magic is. My favorite? The Gramigna, a strange looking dish that tastes delightful. The maccheroni noodles are spinach green and egg yellow, shaped strangely like curly-cues, and cooked a sharp al dente. The best part though is the sauce, filled with chunks of tomatoes, pork sausage, and plenty of black pepper. The result is a comforting, colorful, and satisfying dish that I could eat every night if it didn’t put me back $17. Unfortunately the only missteps food-wise were at the end of the meal. Both desserts sampled, a couple of sorbets and the panna cotta, were just plain bad. Upon leaving, all I had lingering in my mouth was the cough-syrupy taste of a ‘strawberry’ sorbet that tasted suspiciously like a Jolly Rancher and the strange texture of the citrus panna cotta served in a cup. I couldn’t even taste the apricot sorbet, the flavor was so ‘subtle.’
Osteria Morini is the ultimate sort of disappointment – a restaurant with such potential and delicious food that is poorly run. It’s difficult to enjoy a meal when you’re rushed through it and constantly interrupted, when the noise level is borderline intolerable, and when the actual seating is uncomfortable. Not a single aspect was damning, but the combination of little irritations turned Osteria Morini into a restaurant I wouldn’t soon return to.
Perfect For: cocktail night, early in the night eats, pasta fanatics