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Morandi

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Morandi

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Address: 15 Charles St (Greenwich & Waverly Pl)
City: New York, NY
Zip: 10014
Phone: (212) 627-7575
Fax: (212) 627-5511
Hours: Mon-Fri 8am to midnight Sat & Sun 10am to midnight
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Map: Map
Chef: Tony Liu
Cuisine: Italian
Area: West Village
Payment: Amex Visa Mastercard

Review:

The Scene: Craig and I, exterior of Morandi, corner of Waverly and Charles. A warm evening at the edge of winter creeping into spring. A tall man in a suit stands outside the main doors of the restaurant, which has a rustic pale blond wood exterior and long, rectangular bistro windows. Man: “Good evening. Welcome to Morandi. Do you have a reservation?” he asks, holding a reservation list. Me: “Yes, Andrea Strong, for two?” Man: “Yes, yes, sure come in, enjoy your evening.” We walk inside the promised land that is, for this New York minute at least, Morandi. The room is filled with a golden glow. The light comes from soft yellow linen wall sconces and matching wooden chandeliers that are hung on low wood-beamed ceilings. The walls are raw brick; the floors are Italian mosaic tile. Old farmhouse sideboards are topped with large wooden bowls of lemons and pears. The waiters are in white button down shirts and ankle-length burlap aprons. The effect is bistro-chic via the Italian countryside. The crowds are three-deep at the bar. There are handsome couples drinking cocktails, and groups of friends young and old sharing straw-bottomed jugs of wine. We are seated at a corner table set with dishtowel napkins, short squat juice glasses for wine and taller tumblers for water. We open the menu. Chef Jody Williams’ signatures are apparent from the start—fried artichokes with lemon ($10), radishes in olive oil with anchovy and garlic ($5), Sicilian meatballs ($18), foccacia with gorgonzola, bosc pears and cracked pepper ($10). “Oh god, I don’t know what we’re gonna do here. I want everything on this menu,” I say, stressed that we may miss out on something great because there’s just the two of us. It’s taken a lot of calling to get this table and as it is we’re eating at 6pm and I have no idea when I’ll get in again so I want to eat it all. “What if we order a lot of things, so we get to try a lot but we promise not to finish everything on our plates so we don’t roll out of here?” “You’ll get no argument from me,” Craig says, “Let’s do it.” We start with a few cocktails to help us make some decisions about what to eat, because at the moment we’re thinking of ordering all but about four things on the menu. I have an Aranci Rosso ($10), a glass of Proseco so juicy with fresh blood orange nectar that I am convinced there’s no alcohol in it. In a few moments, when I feel that warm, fuzzy feeling start to wash over me, I realize there is. Craig has opted for the Pimm’s Italiano made with gin and strega. It’s terrific—herbaceous, balanced, and just slightly cucumbery. We make our plan, it’s an ambitious one to be sure, but we promise not to finish everything on our plates. We snuggle into our banquette, and look around the room. Keith McNally, the restaurant’s owner and the man behind Teflon all-stars like Pravda, Balthazar, Pastis and Schiller’s, has just arrived and not a soul in the room takes note. He’s dressed simply in a black sweater and dark pants and looks like a regular guy, not someone who in 1997 caused a seismic shift in the dining landscape of New York City with an effortlessly chic brasserie (that would be Balthazar) that seemed to have been transplanted from Paris to Soho by magic carpet. His relative anonymity and lack of interest in playing the role of celebrity restaurateur is unusual, but it is probably a product of his modest English beginnings. His mother worked in a clerical position at the London post office and his father worked the docks for thirty-five years. Most of what I know of McNally I learned from reading the introduction to the Balthazar cookbook, a wonderful piece penned by the art critic Robert Hughes. It’s worth picking the book up just for this bit of history alone, but then you’ll have the added bonus of recipes for their mussels and French fries, so it’s a win-win. In the cookbook, Hughes describes McNally’s first encounter with eating out, something his family never did. The year was 1968, and McNally was 17 and an actor, working in a play by Alan Bennett called Forty Years On in a theater in the West End of London. After the show, he went out with some of the cast for dinner at a place called Bianchi’s in Soho. He ordered melon. “It was the first time I’d ever eaten—or seen—a melon,” McNally says in the book. “The problem was that I didn’t know where to stop eating it and ended up going through the skin and onto the plate.” My how things have changed. But then again, not so much. For all the celebrity status that he holds, he’s really sort of the anti-celebrity restaurateur in many ways. He’s very behind the scenes, spending most of his time with his chefs and staff, and not out shaking hands with guests. He’s not widely recognizable and doesn’t court the press or do many interviews. The man doesn’t even have a PR person. He still uses an AOL email address. Despite the fever around his restaurants and the madness with which people react to a new opening, McNally remains someone who is most concerned about what’s going on inside his restaurants—the food, the service, the atmosphere, and that thing called hospitality. I’ll be honest. I’ve always been in awe of him and what he’s created. I’m impressed with the shelf life of his operations, with how he manages to create environments that people yearn to be a part of. I’ve said this before about him. He sets a great scene, but he always makes sure there’s substance to back it up. There’s friendly, knowledgeable service. There’s good (and sometimes very good) food. There’s consistency of product. There’s the vibe, the design, the perfectly distressed otherworldly décor. And there’s the sense when eating at one of his restaurants that you are in the right place at the right time. Put it all together, and that, friends, is McNally’s magic. Unnoticed by anyone in the dining room, McNally walks up to the front of the restaurant just as a runner drops off the first of our many courses to come. We start with a plate of proscuitto de parma with gnoccho frito ($16), served on a wooden platter that resembles a trivet. Craig pulls a wide sheet of glossy proscuitto off the plate and piles it on top of a gnoccho—a diamond shaped puff of fried buttery dough. The heat of the gnoccho slightly melts the proscuitto, making it almost creamy. We each take a bite. We each start to smile. “Our rule about not finishing everything on our plate doesn’t apply to proscuitto right?” he says. “No, of course not. Proscuitto is the obvious exception,” I agree. As we devour our pork and fried dough, the runner comes over with a bowl of fried stuffed olives ($8), which arrive looking like a cross between a hush puppy and a falafel ball. They’re huge and really are more accurately fried pork and Parmesan balls with a bit of green olive stuffed in them than stuffed olives, but no matter. They are possibly the most delicious fried food I’ve encountered in my life—a golden crust filled with a hot, briny, salty, porky, cheesy middle. Hello? Is there anything better? There are five balls in the little terra cotta bowl. We eat four. We stare at the last one longingly. But we refrain from eating it, and allow the busser to remove it from the table. We’re practically teary-eyed. Grilled radicchio with smoked scamorza cheese ($9) comes next, and while it’s good—the radicchio is nicely charred and shimmering with olive oil, and the melted cheese is seriously smoky, so much so that it tastes like it just came off a barbecue—we’re clearly still thinking about those fried stuffed olives. We give up the radicchio (we manage to leave behind one stem and a tiniest bit of cheese) in preparation for the arrival of our pasta course. Jody offers pasta in two parts—pasta fresca (fresh house made pasta) and pastascuitta (dry pasta). We decide on a bowl of housemade cappellaci ($19) —large, plump triangular dumplings filled up with gorgonzola and fresh ricotta, then pinched at the ends and sauced in butter, olive oil, walnuts and radicchio. The dish is amazingly light considering the amount of cheese and butter it contains, but the radicchio cuts the richness with a sharp bite. As much as we want to finish it off, we abide by our promise and leave one lonely cappellaci on the plate. As the bowl is removed, our attention goes to the table next to us. They’ve ordered the pizzoccheri al forno—a bubbly breadcrumb topped casserole of buckwheat pasta baked with cabbage, speck and bitto cheese ($19). It smells so good we can taste it. I have food envy. Craig does too. We wonder, if we promise to leave some over, if we vow to only have a bite or two, if they’ll let us try it. Turns out we don’t bother our neighbors for a bite, but we think about ordering one for us to share. Maybe for dessert. We lean back into the banquette, and get cozy. We finish off our first half-carafe of wine and order another from our waiter Aaron who marks the table with a big steak knife for the veal chop we’re waiting on. In a few moments he’s back with another straw-bottomed half-carafe of red wine. They’re the sort squat pot-bellied Chianti bottles we used to melt candles in at Bar Mitzvahs. (Remember those?) As we start in on the red, I can feel my cheeks getting pink from the wine. It’s a Friday night at the end of a long week. It’s a great feeling. The carne section of the menu really highlights Jody’s sincere Italian approach to cooking—simplicity rules. There’s a rabbit roasted in lardo with fennel pollen ($23), a chicken grilled with chiles and lemon ($22), and a hanger steak topped with anchovy and garlic ($26). We’ve decided on an order of Jody’s signature Sicilian meatballs ($18), the veal chop ($45), and a few contorni—salt-roasted fingerling potatoes and a serving of escarole cooked with olive oil, lemon and chile flake—a brilliant threesome. The meatballs are as good as they were at Gusto—oversized pups the size of peaches are moist and meaty and stocked with currants and pine nuts that give them a slight Moroccan flair. But the roasted veal chop is something to behold. It’s massive—probably a foot in length, roasted on a 14-inch bone, and looks to be about three inches thick. It is juicy, pink, and incredibly well seasoned, and crowned with a melting layer of fontina cheese and ribbons of proscuitto. Oh yes, this lily is gilded. “Oh, baby,” Craig says as he takes a bite. “This is serious.” He cuts a juicy-pink slice for me. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a veal chop. In fact I know I haven’t. Steak? Yes. Veal? Not on your life. But all that changed last night. It was flawless. Now, let me add that I don’t often spend $45 on an entrée, and we didn’t realize that is was so pricey when we ordered it. If we had, we would’ve skipped it for sure, but we both agree that it was worth it. But in our fever over the veal chop we realize we’ve broken our pledge to leave something behind. We look down at the plate and all that’s left is the bone. But then I recall the story about McNally at 17 years old eating the entire melon including the skin. And I take a look again at the lonely shank on the plate, and I think, yeah, we did the right thing.

Review By: Andrea Strong


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