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Morandi


Nathan
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I ate at Morandi last night with Sneakeater.

Obviously, it was already packed...but we eventually procured seats at the bar.

What's exciting about Morandi is that you combine the front of the house acumen and sourcing management of McNally (all of whom's restaurants are better than they have to be) with the rustic Italian culinary sensibility of Jody Williams. The benefit to McNally is obvious -- he gets to push up the culinary ladder from mere bistro fare. The benefit to Williams is financing, sourcing and access to McNally's deep front of the house pool.

Although Morandi may be in its soft-opening period, being a McNally operation everything was running smoothly...except that they seemed to lack a coat check. As with other McNally restaurants, there appears to be an undisclosed number of walk-in tables available in addition to reservations. McNally has publicly stated that he intends for the bar to be primarily aimed at diners...that wasn't in evidence last night as we had to wait quite awhile for people drinking to leave their seats. However, I was informed that they intended to start following the Babbo model of preserving bar seats for diners and using a walk-in list for bar seats.

The cocktail program, although it has little new for the veteran, is exemplary for a restaurant of this nature. Heavy emphasis on Prosecco, Cynar, Aperol, Carpano Antica, Strega and Campari. The list of grappas is also excellent. Wines are structured by the glass, half-liter and liter -- another laudable aspect of the restaurant.

On to the food: in two words, very good. Began with Williams' trademark fried artichokes. Just like they were at Gusto. Split an appetizer of roasted skate wing with peppers. This was perfectly cooked and seasoned. Better than a skate entree I had years ago at Union Pacific.

From the very interesting pasta menu we split a baked dish which involved cabbage, speck and some sort of bechamel. Cabbage and speck with pasta is native to Alto Aldige (essentially, the Italian Dolomites)...bordering Switzerland and Austria. (the general sensibility at Morandi appears to be northern Italian dipping down through Tuscany.) There's actually been a cabbage and speck pasta dish on the menu at Otto for a couple years now. Anyway, this was superb. Highly recommend it.

For mains we both ordered Coniglio....which came with perfectly roasted potatoes (in my experience most roasted potatoes are over cooked and lose any potato flavor..these did not) and was served in a superb porchetta-based broth. Unfortunately, of my three large pieces of rabbit...one was literally all bone. It was a tad dry as well. This was almost redeemed by the broth and potatoes though.

Sneakeater ordered some sort of chocolate and berry dessert...which seemed to be quite good but I'll let him comment...I just don't have a sweet tooth.

a couple more observations: standing at our location at the bar was some sort of manager who immediately introduced himself and was taking notes throughout the evening on the service and dishes. considering how well they're operating now it'll be interesting in a month or so what they'll have improved.

as I noted earlier, the decor is quite theatrical (in the sense of wood beams and ceiling...brick....etc....its also the most Italian looking of any restaurant in the city (in the sense that one can find places similar to this in any Italian town))...which must have been achieved at great cost.

this place is going to be around for a long, long time.

highly recommend.

Edited by Nathan (log)
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Keith McNally runs a string of places that are better by far than they have any need to be. It displays almost insane integrity, for example, to maintain any level of quality at all at Pastis, which would be wildly successful if it served up little plates of dog turds (French Poodle, in keeping with its strict attention to Gallic detail) to its heatseeking clientele. But yet, Pastis is quite good.

And Balthazzar. When that place first opened, the whole idea struck me as so Disneyland, I actively resisted going there for almost a year. Finally, my wife insisted that I stop being such a stick and dragged me there. Who knew it would be so good?

So now there's Morandi. I suppose it was inevitable that McNally would eventually try Italian. It's difficult to conceive of how this restaurant could be a failure. And guess what? It isn't. The only question I'm having trouble wrestling with is just how good I think it is. Is it a very high-level functional neighborhood Italian? Is it something more than that? I think I tend toward the former -- and I mean no slight by saying that, since I'm sure that's pretty much what was intended.

The room itself is perfectly Italian-seeming, with the same attention to detail that makes Balthazzar such a perfect reproduction of a brasserie in Paris. You can argue over questions of authenticity and whether this is even a respectable goal to accomplish. But you can't dispute that these are great rooms to be in.

The drinks list is excellent. Best list at a McNally place yet, IMO.

So now the food. I've read references to its being Sicilian-influenced, but I didn't see that at all. As Nathan said, it seemed mainly Northern (although the fried artichokes of course come straight from the Roman ghetto). I've never had Jody Williams's food before. She's very good, in an unsurprising straightforward way. Italian comfort food at a very high level.

I'll add some additional comments to what Nathan said about the food.

The skate dish was my favorite. It was Skate in Saor -- a variation on the classic Venitian Sardelle in Saor (sardines in a tangy/sour vinegar sauce). The skate took well to this preparation. It was a good idea that worked.

I wanted the pasta dish mainly because I've been reading the Alto Adige food thread here on eGullet (not that the menu identified its regional provenance -- or that of any other dish). I thought it was a bit bland -- maybe she should have used more cabbage or something -- but that blandness might actually be true to the style of cooking up there. It is interesting that the pasta was made from rye. Not that I tasted that, particularly.

The only thing that bothered me about the rabbit is that they neglected to give us any bread with which we could have sopped up the fantastically delicious lardo broth.

So where does this place sit in the scheme of things? I had dinner the night before in Sfloglia on the Upper East Side. I think I've underrated that place in the past. It's very very good. But still essentially a very high-level neighborhood place. Morandi is the same. The ingredients aren't as fine, the technique isn't as painstaking, and the conceptions aren't as interesting as at A Voce (a restaurant that's just worth going out of your way for). I'll note that if you can't get into Morandi, you can walk a few blocks and have a meal that will be slightly less interesting, but just as well-prepared, at Barbutto.

I guess what I'm trying to say with all this is that there's a disjunction between the assertedly modest goals of Morandi and the incredible fashion frenzy attending the opening. It'll reach equilibrium in time. Meanwhile, the people in the room (other than me) sure were attractive.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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I don't recall any Sicilian dishes offhand.

is he completely unfamiliar with Italian cooking?

the pastas were all from parts north if I remember right.

(hint to Cutlets: "Bolognese" refers to a city...and it aint in Sicily)

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Actually, there's one obvious point that's so obvious nobody made it.

Good bistro/brasserie food is very rare in this town. So Balthazzar becomes a destination just by virtue of having it.

Good straightforward Italian is not a very rare thing, though. (I now have to duck as rich starts hurling things at me in disagreement.) That's why it's a little hard to comprehend the "fever" surrounding Morandi. Another good solid Italian place. One that I'll happily revisit when I'm around there. But it's not so much of a big deal.

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agreed. the fever is because it's a mcnally operation that isn't a bistro. fwtw.

you know, I just looked at the menu again. what is cutlets smoking? I want some of it. there are two recognizably Sicilian items on the menu...and I recognize most of the dishes and where they're from.

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I would like to ask about the fascination with Bollito Misto? My grandmother made it and I thought it was terrible. Meat placed in warm warm water with a few herbs and spices and allowed to sit for hours. It tastes like cardboard without the corrugation (ie no texture).

That restaurants serve this is strange. My grandmother said they did this in Italy with tough old meat that couldn't be prepared/served any other way. It was never meant to be a delicacy - at least as far as I can tell.

Rich Schulhoff

Opinions are like friends, everyone has some but what matters is how you respect them!

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1.  It may be that you have to be Mittel-to-East-European Jewish to understand the fascination with boiled meats.

2.  I've had bollito misto in fine restaurants in Italy.  There's a place in Milan that's rather famous for it.

I agree they serve it in Italy SE, I just wonder why? Maybe it's just one of those comfort-type food things that has become fashionable.

I'd much rather eat brisket, corned beef or pastrami than Bollito Misto.

Rich Schulhoff

Opinions are like friends, everyone has some but what matters is how you respect them!

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That restaurants serve this is strange. My grandmother said they did this in Italy with tough old meat that couldn't be prepared/served any other way. It was never meant to be a delicacy - at least as far as I can tell.

My guess is that if it's on the menu as a special it's not going to taste like cardboard, which alone might be reason enough to try it.

As for a dish never meant to be a delicacy, I think one could say that's the story for many foods we enjoy. Take, for example, any offal dish, or dried/cured meats and fishes. Fermented bean pastes, pickled vegetables, even sushi.

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That restaurants serve this is strange. My grandmother said they did this in Italy with tough old meat that couldn't be prepared/served any other way. It was never meant to be a delicacy - at least as far as I can tell.

My guess is that if it's on the menu as a special it's not going to taste like cardboard, which alone might be reason enough to try it.

As for a dish never meant to be a delicacy, I think one could say that's the story for many foods we enjoy. Take, for example, any offal dish, or dried/cured meats and fishes. Fermented bean pastes, pickled vegetables, even sushi.

I understand all that, I'm just trying to determine the fascination with it.

I think it will taste like cardboard no matter who makes it - maybe it's the name. If you didn't know what it was, the name makes it sounds terrific.

Guess I'm just not a fan of boiled meats (including flanken SE) - enjoy some texture and not just flab.

Rich Schulhoff

Opinions are like friends, everyone has some but what matters is how you respect them!

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While on the phone yesterday attempting to secure a reservation next week for myself, Mrs. S., and a fellow eG'er, I was told they had a table available last night for two at 7pm - I snagged it.

Arrived at 6:50pm and was immediately seated. The place was just about full and the bar area was already two deep. The menus came as well as a wine list and I was immediately impressed by both. One of the finest selections of Italian wines ever assembled.

I very rarely order white wine (especially Italian whites), but there was a 1999 Golfo from Liguria that could be had at $40 - I couldn't and wouldn't let that opportunity pass. Great wine, great price and perfect for what my wife and I intended to order (for the most part).

We began with an order of Sicilian meatballs (there were five). The best tasting version I've ever tasted this side of my great aunt's home in Brooklyn (there's that dirty word again). Fried to the point of an almost-burned crust and served in a marinara sauce that would knock your shoes off and leave your socks happy.

Next came an order of fresh mozzarrella with roasted peppers. Some of the best mozzarella ever. I asked the waiter if it was made in-house. He wasn't sure. Skate in Soar sauce followed - a very large appetizer portion. The fish was moist, perfectly prepared with a slight crust and the sauce was outstanding.

After that, we split the Friday special of Fried Baccala. Served with french fries it was the Italian version of fish & chips, but so much better. The batter was light, crisp and the fish was moist and full. The aioli served with the chips was also used on the fish. It reminded me of the fries served with mussels at Landmarc. Truly a remarkable dish.

We finished with the incredible cheese plate and ordered a glass of Alba and Sangiovese. There were four cheeses with the Reggiano and Tallegio being the standouts. It came with a roasted ciopllini and poached peaches. A perfect way to end a meal. The bill came to under $190 with tax and tip - a steal by any NYC standard for this type of meal.

Morandi is scary. If it's this good on its third night, how much better can it get? It's already on par with the best NYC "real" Italian (Sapori d'Ischia) and much better (foodwise) than Del Posto, Babbo, Felidia, A Voce. L'Impero, etc. This is real down to earth Italian cooking at its finest.

If you want frills, marble floors, flowing drapes, live piano playing, this place is not for you. If you want a taste of what Italian food is all about, then sprint, don't run or walk to Morandi.

There were a few problems. Service as somewhat slow, but that's totally understandable for Day 3. The room (divided into three parts) is quite noisy and the tables are close, but that makes for great conversation with the tables around you.

When we left at 9:15pm, Morandi was completely full and the bar was about seven deep. This is a restaurant for the ages - it will be around for the next 30-40 years. And if I can secure the reservations I will be there next week with a fellow eG'er and on April 13th with my brothers for our mom's 79th birthday - she'll think her mother was cooking.

Edited by rich (log)

Rich Schulhoff

Opinions are like friends, everyone has some but what matters is how you respect them!

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