Addendum 3/29/07: Now with Morandi's controversial wine list! For an update on Morandi's wines, please see this link.

When most people ask for restaurant recommendations, what they're seeking isn't about food at all. "It's so-and-so's birthday. Where should we eat?" "I'm only in New York for one night!" Or my favorite, "What's the cool place to go now?" But if you respond by asking them East Side or West Side, Asian or Italian, you look like a dolt yourself. It's not about just good food, good service, and a nice atmosphere. It's an endless quest for a sophisticated, grown-up version of fun.

It's apparent from the moment you walk in the door at Morandi that Keith McNally delivers just that, again, with his latest creation. As of this New York minute, the scene at Morandi is like Pastis' in the good old days. There's the trademark backlit bar with its glowing liquor bottles, accented this time by unfinished wooden beams instead of subway tile. Hearth-shaped brick arches inlaid with shelves of wicker wine casks define each wall. The surface of the bar is beaten copper, the tin ceilings are low - wait a minute, isn't this just the ground space in a '60 red brick building? Is Morandi really an Italian restaurant, or is it a McNally theme version of the same? Never mind. You'll be too distracted by the undercurrent of jazz and the buzzy noise of conversation to notice.

Morandi's chef, Jody Williams, wowed at Gusto with several dishes that reappear here, the carciofi (fried artichokes) and the polpetti (meatballs). I was a fan of her cooking at Gusto and still am here. But as for fried artichokes, call me a WASP, but they're all smoke and mirrors to me. Artichokes are a vegetable. They're good steamed and dipped in a bagna cauda. Fried plain, they seem underseasoned. I wanted to call a do-over and stuff them with cheese.

The olive ascolane, fried stuffed green olives, were like crazy Italian junk food, which doesn't really exist. I'm not quite sure what's in them, but they're good. The focaccia gorgonzola e pere, focaccia with gorgonzola and Bosc pears, was somewhat misleading. It arrived on a cute little wooden board - was this a pizza or a focaccia? Though the pear and gorgonzola combination on top was great, an actual Italian would scoff at the bread, whatever it was, because it was floppy. Some things are always disappointing when floppy.

Sometimes a ray of pure genius would shine through, as with the polipetti e sedano, grilled octopus with celery and black olives. This seemed truly Italian. Why? Because, served whole on the plate, tentacles and all, it is identifiable as a once-live animal. My general rule of thumb with Italian food in New York is to order what sounds gross to most people, because it's usually the best thing on the menu. A side benefit is that if you're dining with girls, you often won't have to share.

Back to the octopus: where, oh Lord, is the divinity in celery? I don't know, but rarely has a chef elicited such a subtle, delicate flavor from a scattering of celery and olives, a warm vinaigrette, and a slightly charred octopus. I was transported. As at Gusto, Williams has an especially deft touch with seafood.

There were only two of us dining, due to a flu attack on the third, and the staff couldn't have been nicer about the reservation change and the babysitter delay my mom friend suffered. In short, we were displaying the typical New Yorker pain-in-the-ass behavior that drives some restaurants crazy. Even though we were late sitting down, the waitress didn't rush us after securing our orders. The busboys, though polite and efficient, were overly aggressive clearers. At some points I found myself literally gripping my plate so that no one would take my food away from me. I felt like a feral animal. This isn't true of just Morandi though: the overly-aggressive-clearing trend is happening everywhere.

On to the entrees. The tagliatelle alla Bolognese was sufficiently Italian, but not anything to write home about. Sticking with my earlier rule, I ordered the coniglio in porchetta - that's rabbit roasted in lardo and fennel pollen. Yup, that cute little bunny that'll be coming round Eastertime. After he delivers your basket full of candy, I suggest you hunt him down and serve him up to Williams, because she really knows what to do with him. This dish was Mario-esque, what with the inclusion of lardo. Williams must have left the rabbit to roast for a long, slow time over garlic. Like the octopus, it was paradoxically complex yet straightforward, and very good.

Though he pings your subsconscious with bottles everywhere, I don't like McNally's approach to wine. Compared with even the most basic Mario joint, Morandi's wine offerings are paltry - there's not enough information about them on the list, maybe because they're all pretty basic. The kitschy wine carafes with wicker bases are fun, but they're also an indicator that wine isn't exactly approached in the most reverential manner.

As the evening progressed and the place filled up and the noise level grew to a deafening din of beautiful people, I leaned in to talk to my friend and noticed that the table was small enough that we could still hear each other. But of course it was: McNally had anticipated this very moment. Somewhere, from behind the magic curtain, he knew that he would have to balance the desire for a buzzy place with the desire to have a conversation. Just as he knew how to make an excellent first impression: the glowing bar, the jazz hopping in the background, the smiling staff.
Everywhere I looked, there were hearth shapes. Didn't I just read in the Times that hearth shapes appeal to "the 'reptilian mind,' the preconscious part of the brain where archetypes and primitive associations are imprinted"? And don't you think that McNally already knew such things without having to read about them in the Times? When I walked back to the restrooms, I was happy to see that he had reverted back to single-sex washrooms so that I wouldn't have to put on lipstick in front of some gawking guy. As soon as I had the thought, I knew: McNally was thinking the same thing. It was almost eerie, as if he were always right there looking over our shoulders.

It's no accident that "McNally" has been compared to "McDonald's." It takes a lot of thought to pull off something that seems so effortlessly successful. Don't bother comparing Morandi to a "real" Italian restaurant: it was never meant to be one. That would be like going to Disney World and complaining that Cinderella is an actress. Look at the exterior of Morandi: It's practically a stage set, like the American revenge on Italy for the trickery that was the spaghetti Western.

But even when you can see the strings of the master puppeteer working in the rafters, it doesn't affect the overall feeling of well-being you get from Morandi. It's not a coincidence that when many people ask for a restaurant recommendation, they can't describe exactly what they want. It almost defies description, and that's where McNally steps in and executes expertly every time. With Morandi, he taps into the collective fantasy of what a fun Italian restaurant should be and makes it real.

211 Waverly Place at Seventh Avenue

Related article: More on Morandi


joy said...

I'm assuming that the rabbit was not floppy. I'll be on the lookout for Peter Cottontail as he hops on down the bunny trail now!

And, for the record, I would have asked for a bite of your octopus.

Chef MC said...

This place sounds fabulous. And I agree with you about fried artichokes, in a general sense (I've never had them at Morandi). By the look of them they remind me of fried locusts. And there is also a slight tongue-numbing thing when you chew one. Bleck!

Ray said...

Everything you wrote made sense. Morandi is a good/great restaurant for straightforward, precise rustic Italian food.
I've been to Morandi four times since it opened since I live a few blocks away.
But I'd like to please ask you specific questions about your comments on the wine list since your comments were so vague, and I happen to be an importer of wine. Do your comments come from lack of knowledge about Italian wine? It's OK that you might not know a lot about Italian wine as most of us do not, but you write a fuzzy critique about the wine lis...a wine list which is so creative, personal and thoughtful, and excellent.
What specifically is paltry about the wine list? I found plenty represented in all varying price points.
"There's not enough basic information about them." The wine list from what I could recall lists all of the crucial information: region, grape, vineyard, proprietary facts, vintage, etc.
Due to your potential lack of wine knowledge, would you like a detailed description of each wine so that the wine list blossoms to dozens of pages?
How do you define a "basic wine"?
Stop writing about wine until you scratch the surface of mastering it.

Anonymous said...

weird comments about the wine list being paltry. the wine list encompasses all of italy at varying prices and it's a truly creative, exciting list. i'm a 30-year wine importer in NYC so i'm a bit more qualified to comment. but i'd love to hear the specific reasons from this, um, challenged, wine commentator about why the wine list...

Anonymous said...

Morandi’s wine list is creative and exciting and extremely varied in terms of style, price point and it covers all of Italy. I’ve been in the wine importing business for 30 years and was shocked to see that a not-so-savvy reviewer would say the “wine offerings are paltry” and “all pretty basic.” Suggestion to this critic: steal the wine list, take it home and analyze it before your burp out comments that make you look like yet another food critic with little knowledge of wine. Be adventurous and order great, esoteric, rare wines on the Morandi list that you can’t find almost anywhere else: Viognier “Maviglia” Vinicola Mille Una 2005; Brunello di Montalcino, Pietroso 2001, and Roero Arneis, Uva Rara, Frecciarossa 2004.

bellastraniera said...

OK, winos: to clarify. Click through on the link in the wine paragraph and you'll see the comparison is to Otto. I prefer their list, which is extensive to the point of being an exhaustive survey of Italian wines. Also, though Otto also serves wines in portions smaller than a bottle - in their case, a quartino - they pour it at the table and show you the label. Thus, more information about the wines. But at Morandi, they decant it into the carafe and you never see the label. Given the choice between showing the bottle and using kitschy wicker carafes, McNally chose the carafes. I found it irksome, just as I find the wine list at Schiller's gimmicky with its "cheap"/"decent"/"good" divisions. I also don't like the drinking glasses that serve as wine glasses. Though I know that's an actual means of serving wine in "the old country," I don't like it there either - though I've encountered these glasses more stateside, I'm afraid. Those glasses are used more for everyday wines in Italy and France, not nice restaurant wines - so which is it? Kind of a mixed wine metaphor at McNally places.

I'm no wine expert nor do I pretend to be; my knowledge is above average at best. So yes, if there are gems on the list, I easily could have missed them - and our waitress did not provide much guidance at all in that respect, though we asked. Next time, I'll try your suggestions.

But I'm sure I will still think McNally's approach to wine is annoying.

Anonymous said...

Umm, the info on the Morandi wine list is comprehensive so it's not like Morandi is not listing crucial facts in some paranoid ploy to deceive guests.

Sounds like you'd like the chef to walk out with each dish and present the food course, along with its wrapping describing the contents. The wine list and the food menus are good and acceptable if they list just the correct, edited info.

If the waitress couldn't answer your wine questions, did you ask her to find someone who could? Maybe the floor manager or a sommelier?

Sorry I'm so focused on this but I was so impressed with the floor manager who poured my wine and when I asked her what Cave du Vin Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle referred to, she replied without skipping a beat, and explained how it tasted, where it was located in Italy and a dish it would taste well on the Morandi menu.

joy said...

Not to start a flame war--but if so, Anonymous, assuming you're probably the same person (how many wine importers read this anyway)--there is no need to post so many times. I think you made your point. Perhaps you are, um, challenged with the fine art of posting. You are certainly, um, not challenged with condscension!

Your thirty years of wine importing experience are truly impressive and were certainly helpful in clarifying points in this review. But it was hard to see the opinion through the outrage.

Can't we all just get along? Where is civility? And why stay anonymous?

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