On a Tuesday night, Osteria Morini is a madhouse. Boisterous parties of well-heeled New Yorkers crowd into the restaurant’s every corner, overflowing over the bar and into a deceptively deep dining room. The restaurant seems to swell with the collective flesh crammed into its crevices, threatening to burst onto Prince Street. Not surprisingly, Michael White’s latest project has proved popular; just how popular is a bit shocking. Osteria Morini now poses one of New York’s greatest reservation challenges; opening week, the gatekeepers turned away around 250 guests at the door. Luckily, one of my gracious friends in “the industry” (a brief aside: if another anxious waitress asks me whether I’m in “the industry,” I think I’m going to snap) managed to secure a reservation, for five no less. In such a large group, I sampled an impressive range of the menu in one sitting. As expected from a Michael White restaurant, the food feels joyful, candid, and free from manipulation. Served in such a sincerely kitschy setting, the fare attracts both the hip and the seeking-hipness. Still, Osteria Morini never devolves into an unpleasant exercise in New York restaurant cool; instead, it is a place to enjoy the company of friends, preferably those with whom little idle conversation is necessary—the acoustic effect of Osteria Morini is best described as riotous.
To start, a trio of meats on a wooden slab: sopressata, cacciatorini, prosciutto. Delicately plucked from the board and draped across bread, these cured meats provide a fleeting distraction from social engagement, a momentary occupation for fingers and mouths. An upsell from the waitstaff, the lumbering platter merely delays the meal’s serious beginning, a congenial albeit unnecessary diversion. Similarly, the bizarre collection of photographs, art, and mirrors adorning the walls recall a slightly dotty grandmother’s sitting room, if that grandmother lived in an Italian tavern. The decor catches a wandering eye and holds its gaze for a puzzled moment, then releases it with a shrug: mere eccentricity, if wholly engineered.
For antipasti, avoid the gallo, or cockscomb, mainly due to its lack of cockscomb-ness. In this hearty stew over bread, the floppy rooster parts disintegrate into an unidentifiable gelatinous mess. When I order cockscomb, I want to “taste”—or more accurately, experience—the cockscomb’s delightful texture. Instead, try a side of Brussels sprouts and pancetta, predictably caramelized and salty. Michael White excels at designing wonderfully addictive contorni (see the Pecorino patate at Convivio), and these sprouts prove the rule.
If I returned to Osteria Morini, I would only order pasta. Mezzalune (warning: my memory for/knowledge of Italian spelling is embarrassingly poor), half-moon shaped parcels filled with squash and topped with brown butter, fill the mouth with a blossoming rapture of sweet autumn. Sigh inducing, each bite comforts the soul with spiritual warmth, like the fragmented phrases of an evangelical preacher speaking to an enthralled audience. Yes, I just compared Michael White to an evangelist. But if Michael White proselytizes the word of pasta, then I’m a follower. Not quite as staggering, cappelletti stuffed with truffled marscarpone delivers an understated hit of funk, unexpectedly reserved. And creste, a short tubular pasta, swims in a gritty melange of improperly cleaned seafood. Nevertheless, White’s pasta always possesses impact and a heartfelt emotional depth that his competitors fail to reproduce.
Unfortunately, entrees taste oversalted straight down the absurdly oversized menu. A veal cutlet comes smothered in melted cheese—not smothered in the oh-yes-the-pure-expression-of-delicious-excess way, but smothered in the oh-no-a-misguided-attempt-at-rusticity way. At least an overcooked filet of branzino retains some essence of its original flavor, however disguised behind a liberal salt shaker. Yet, skewers of sweetbreads and pork loin, what White’s menu designers dub “spiedini,” respond well to the kitchen’s high sodium strategy. Unlike the cockscomb, the sweetbreads still taste like an animal’s organs—and that’s how they should taste. These skewers approximate a backyard barbecue of the finest order, rustic food fit for the Iliad‘s Trojan (read Roman) heroes. Or the fashionistas swinging past after work.
Ultimately, Michael White’s restaurants achieve such profound success not solely on the basis of well-executed and well-conceived cuisine, but also on the unique atmosphere he constructs at each individual spot. Osteria Morini appeals to the moneyed and fashionable because of its paradoxical identity: both homey, unassuming tavern and upscale dining mecca. Therein, Osteria Morini affects humility and ostentation simultaneously, a strangely attractive juxtaposition.
Leaving Osteria Morini, I spotted Josh Ozersky manning a seat at the bar. My first visit to a Michael White restaurant in four months, and who do I see but his biggest fan helping hold down the fort. I found this entirely coincidental incident infinitely amusing, since many in the “blog-o-sphere” suspect that if one wants to find Ozersky, one ought to look no further than the reaches of White’s empire on any given night. Maybe there is some truth in Westerns after all.