Bologna, the capital of Emilia-Romagna, is often heralded as Italy’s culinary capital, and deservedly so. How can you not champion a cuisine whose main ingredients include cream, butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and prosciutto? You might then assume that Michael White’s new Soho restaurant, Osteria Morini, which celebrates the food of this region, would be the crowning jewel of his Italian restaurant empire, but that’s not quite the case. Perhaps he’s saving that for his newest venture, Ai Fiori, whose menu veers toward the Riviera before diving into the world of truffles and caviar. Yet Osteria Morini is a solid and often very rewarding restaurant.
The restaurant’s décor embraces barnyard chic, though I despise calling it that because I’ve never encountered a barn that was actually chic. But you know what I’m referring to: wood-beamed ceilings, rustic wooden tables, low-hanging light fixtures, and chintzy, floral-patterned plates. It sort of works, but not entirely. It doesn’t overly fetishize the sun-drenched Italian countryside like its near-homonym Morandi does, but you occasionally feel like you’re at a really nice Olive Garden. You know, like the one in Times Square.
White has received some early criticism for his food here being too rich, which it can be. The menu follows the traditional Italian style, with entrées preceded by both appetizer and pasta courses, followed by dessert and maybe a grappa. This style of dining might suit Italians (who seem born blessed with Monica Bellucci’s physique and an ability to eat their weight in starch), but for us gluttonous Americans who have already consumed breakfast, lunch, and midday snacks, it may be difficult to finish four courses at Osteria Morini without feeling like you’re turning into a fat tortellini yourself. But if you go with friends and share several dishes, you’ll be just fine.
For starters, skip the Bolognese street snacks ($8)—tiny fried morsels of mortadella, polenta, and béchamel croquettes, expensive at about $1 per bite. Instead, order the marinated sardines with borlotti beans. Yes, beans ‘n’ sardines sounds like a heart-healthy dish served at dreary British boarding schools, but it’s actually delectable. The sardines are plump and tangy and the beans are perfectly cooked. The seafood salad ($12), lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, is another refreshing appetizer. And don’t leave without ordering the sformato ($14), a Parmesan-infused, silky custard topped with braised wild mushrooms, quite possibly my favorite dish on the whole menu. It comes with two slices of toast you can use for scooping, but you’ll want to eat it right out of the crock with a spoon. Pass on the coniglio ($13), though, essentially crostini of rabbit confit with porcini cream, which tastes more of oil than Thumper.
The restaurant’s real shining stars are the pastas, all made in-house. My favorite was the cappelletti ($19), a rich half-moon stuffed with oozing truffled mascarpone. Stracci ($19), thin sheets of pasta, are tossed with wild mushroom ragu and a hint of rosemary oil, while the tagliatelle with ragú antica ($17) would do any Bolognese nonna proud. And while it’s not as glamorous as its starchy cousin, you’d be a fool for not ordering one of the polentas. Try the version studded with sausage and stracchino cheese ($17). Topped with tomato sauce and breadcrumbs, it’s surely made with enough cream to drown a newborn baby. The only disappointments were the gnocchi ($17), dense and chewy like Bazooka gum. The creste ($19), a curved, tubular pasta, could have also used more seafood, but now I’m really just being nitpicky.
After the pastas, the entrées are a bit of a letdown, though I enjoyed the porchetta ($29), a massive piece of tender rolled pork loin. Grilled swordfish ($28), so often bland, is juicy and meaty, a worthy match for the acorn squash accompaniment. Roasted baby chicken ($24) comes with golden brown, crispy skin and perches atop a smattering of seared brussels sprouts. The branzino ($27) is less successful and missing some oomph, but no matter what you eat, you can’t go wrong with the impressive wine list, which showcases both popular and unknown Italian producers.
Desserts are less Italian than you’d expect and falter occasionally. An affogato ($10) contains so much espresso in a huge glass you’d think it was a coffee milkshake (not bad, but not what I expect from an affogato), while an apple turnover ($11) arrives doughy and reminded me of a McDonald’s baked apple pie. A peanut butter and chocolate torta ($12), though, is alluring, like a sexed-up Reese’s cup.
Osteria Morini is a welcome downtown addition to White’s restaurant repertoire. I’d return any day for the cappelletti and polenta, and maybe even make a carbolicious meal out of both of them. If you follow in my footsteps, look carefully at the right-hand side of the menu before ordering. You’ll find Sophia Loren’s famed quote, “Everything you see I owe to pasta,” written in tiny script. Apropos, indeed. Given what he’s done at Osteria Morini, it could be attributable to Michael White.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 22, 2010