Rome native Antonio Morichini has spent time in the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in the Italian capital. He began with a two-year stage at Michelin-starred Il Convivio Troiani, then worked his way up to sous chef and then chef de cuisine at numerous eateries with designations from the esteemed organization, including Glass Hostaria and Acquolina. Now the accomplished chef has brought his vast résumé to his own Italian neighborhood dining room at Astoria’s Via Vai (31-09 23rd Avenue, Queens; 347-612-4334).
Since first arriving in New York seven years ago, Morichini has helmed several noteworthy restaurants, including Bottega del Vino, 83 1/2, Gavi in Westchester, and Provini and Bevacco in Brooklyn. His wife, Cynthia, works for the United Nations, so they moved back and forth between New York and Rome for the first few years. But with three kids, they have been living stateside for a while now, giving Morichini the opportunity to embark on opening a place of his own.
Opened in June, the eatery combines Morichini’s roots with his high-end training. It’s not traditional Italian, but it does honor some of the customary approaches to the cuisine. A time-honored Roman dish, Morichini’s amatriciana ($15) incorporates the customary tomato sauce, onion, black pepper, guanciale (cured pork cheeks rather than the ubiquitous pancetta in the States), and Pecorino Romano cheese. He does a house-made gnocchi ($14), on the other hand, that is rolled with ricotta and spinach, then finished with a mushroom gravy. “We’re a step behind the innovation, a step ahead of the conservative,” says Morichini. “I don’t want to stay too much with the traditional.”
The wine list is completely Italian, with selections spanning the peninsula. Most of the staff are from the country or of Italian heritage. The fare embraces the culinary culture, old and new.
Following in his Michelin-starred roots, he also offers specials with rarer ingredients like rabbit and quail in dishes like his pappardelle with rabbit, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, rosemary, and tomatoes. Rabbit porchetta with a mint and spinach frittata is another.
That being said, for Morichini, it’s all about striking a balance. Roman-style thin-crust pizza ($11 to $16) is one of his specialties. Most of his ingredients are imported from Italy; sourcing high-quality product is a big part of the process. He forgoes the inexpensive domestic mozzarella in favor of the pricier fior di latte for his margherita, napoletana (with anchovies), funghi e salsiccia (mushrooms and sausage), capricciosa (marinated artichokes, prosciutto, olives, sliced hard-boiled eggs, tomato sauce), and more.
Given all that experience in ambitious restaurants, pizza and other common simple items may sound peculiar. But with a desire to hone his craft even further, Morichini took on an apprenticeship at one of Rome’s best bakeries, Roscioli, after leaving Il Convivio Troiani. For six months, he’d wake up at 4 a.m. to learn the craft of baking breads and pastries. “We made bread at the restaurant,” says Morichini. “I wanted to learn much more, to go deeper, to learn the different flours, how the yeast works, fermentation. You discover it’s another world.”
One of the oldest continually run bakeries in the city since 1824 (it was mentioned in a Vatican census), the family-owned business has expanded to include a prized salumeria, wine bar, and restaurant (under one roof) that is widely regarded as one of the best places to eat in the city.
Given his experience, it’s no surprise that Morichini is skilled when it comes to desserts ($8). Torta di mele, a rustic apple cake with cinnamon, raisins, and pine nuts served with English cream, is typical of the pastries found in Rome. Nutella pizza is another option.
The tortino di cioccolato, a chocolate cake with raspberry filling that is somewhat reminiscent of a soufflé (it has flour, so it’s not exactly that), is one of his specials for Valentine’s Day. For the holiday, Via Vai is offering the dessert paired with a glass of Italian dessert wine, Ronchi di Cialla Verduzzo, for $12.
A number of specials will be added to the regular dinner menu, as well. Expect to see holiday-inspired dishes like lavender-crusted lamb chops, honey-pistachio-crusted scallops with passion fruit glaze, oysters, and grilled filet mignon with polenta and gorgonzola fondue.
Via Vai is still taking reservations for Valentine’s Day.