More on Morandi, and Who I Am

Addendum, later that night, 3/30/07: Morandi is ready for prime time, folks! Guess what? Ever intrepid, I went back to Morandi after writing this. The wines by the carafe I would now recommend are the Puglia 2005 Rosato (aka rosé, very nice with the usual artichoke/mozzarella starters and not available on original list), the Liguria, a white 2004 Al Barola (not available on the original list), and the Toscana, a 2004 Rosso di Montalcino (which might have replaced my original bad Tuscan wine experience). At last, this tastes like the real Florentine Chianti jug wine.

This is what blogs are for: initial commentary. I am happy that we diners have secured some excellent carafe wines to drink at Morandi.
Mille grazie, Keith.

The real story in online restaurant reviews is often in the comments. Witness the recent brouhaha over Frank Bruni's snapshot of Balthazar in the Times' new food blog, Diner's Journal. Cataloging a single meal, Bruni proclaimed the risotto "inexcusable" and the chicken "overcooked." As soon as the review went up, the comments started to fly. A host of diners wrote in about similar negative experiences at Balthazar, others had nothing but good things to say, and a number of industry people defended the restaurant's good intentions - waiters, hosts, restauranteurs, and finally even one beleaguered Balthazar chef himself, Riad Nasr. All this prompted Bruni write in a follow-up post: "I tried to stress in my blog post that it was a single experience — that my descriptions didn’t amount to a formal review."

I don't have 50+ people writing in response to my reviews (and yes, I call mine reviews), but after enraging a couple of winos with my comments about the wine at Morandi, I thought it might be time to set the record straight. What I am trying to do with the reviews is give you a first impression of a restaurant. For the new places, I try to wait at least three weeks to let a kitchen get its legs. I'm not trying to convey an experience of the entire menu (or the wine list) from A to Z, just my opinion of the place and an idea of what it's like to dine there.

Back to Morandi

For you, dear readers, I stole a wine list and scanned the whole thing in, probably outing myself as a critic in the process. (Have you ever tried to steal a 12x15 booklet bound by two pieces of wood? It's not easy, even with the help of a trench coat.) The entire wine list is below. Correction: the list is not paltry but extensive. I was initially reacting to just the "vini della casa" available by the glass and carafe and should have been clearer about that in the review.

Second, though I fully endorse Morandi as a whole, I still am not crazy about the wines available by the glass or carafe (addendum: but see above), which are not incorporated into the rest of the list. These are still being tinkered with (last revision to wine list was 3/23/07), and one of the reds I had is no longer on offer. The first time I went to Morandi, we ordered by the glass so that we could try more than one wine. Most recently I had the one of the bianchi, the 2005 Vermentino di Gallura "S'Elme" Cantina del Vermentino. My friend was doing the wine ordering, and the sommelier, who was very prompt, polite, attentive, and knowledgeable, steered her in that direction. Did I like it? No. I'm sorry, Morandi. Next time I'll order the Orvieto. I found the Vermentino simplistic and too acidic, but guess what? Keith McNally triumphs again. I'm pretty sure I was the only one in the entire restaurant who cared that the carafe wines were not that great.

Why? Because McNally's an expert at giving the people what they want. He knows that many diners do not know a whole lot about wine, and he would never do anything to make us feel uncomfortable, particularly in the tricky field of Italian wines. So for the boozers, there's wine by the carafe, for the winos, there's the selection of fancy wines available by the bottle. And once those French doors are thrown open to the springtime, there will be nothing more refreshing than one of Morandi's inexpensive lite white wines by the carafe.

Throughout this wine controversy, I became annoyed that some comments were signed only as "anonymous." Then I realized you do not know my name either. It's Marcy Swingle. Google me if you want to know more. The internet never forgets.

To the industry people: if I reserve at a restaurant under my own name from now on, it means I'm just there to eat, not to review. I'll be using fake names to dine for future reviews. Though this may require the eventual wearing of wigs, I think it's better to dine anonymously than to write anonymously.

My Previous Experience with Italian Wines by the Carafe

Someone suggested I not write about wines at all unless I'm an expert in the topic. Again, I'm no expert, but here's my previous experience with Italian wine served by the carafe.

In 1993, I spent a semester abroad with an Italian family in Bagno a Ripoli, a suburb of Florence. They drank red wine with every lunch and dinner, and, in a custom I thought was quite strange but was also quite common, they poured their glasses half full with wine, then filled the rest with water. (They used wine glasses, not drinking glasses.) The wine wasn't anything to be talked about; it was just part of the meal. My Italian "mother" got the wine, which was a Chianti, from a vintner nearby. Her family had bought wine from his family for generations. It didn't come in a bottle but in a big glass jug; when she wanted more wine, she brought the glass jug back for him to refill.

my Italian host family, the Renais, outside their house in Bagno a Ripoli

In April, my parents came to visit me in Florence, and my Italian mother invited them over for a meal. Unlike me, my father actually is a wine expert. I grew up drinking excellent wines, mainly French and Californian, and so I remember wine labels and names - mostly of wines I can't afford. My father arrived bearing a very nice Italian wine he'd bought at one of the shops in Florence. The gift had the opposite effect he'd intended: My Italian host family was horrified.

"Mother of God!" they said in Italian. "That wine: it's too good! Why did he bring it? We can't drink that now, with this meal. It's too expensive."

Fortunately, I was the only one there who could understand both English and Italian, so I managed to negotiate a deal with my Italian family before an international incident arose. They would "try" the fancy wine if they could serve their house wine with the meal.

A separate set of glasses was brought out for my father's wine. Meanwhile, my Italian brother poured the house wine for my father, though I stopped him before he could dilute my the wine with water. My father poured the fancy shop wine into their glasses. Everybody drank.

"Buono," the Italians said, eyeing their glasses as if they contained a form of liquid gold.

My father started to laugh when he tasted the jug wine. "It's really good!" He raised an eyebrow. "Where did you get it?"

"From the guy down the road," my Italian mother said.

My father wondered he could buy some from the vintner, which only confused them further. Why would he want a jug of wine? The local vintner didn't even bottle it. Why would he want this wine if he could have something much better?

Because, I explained to my Italian family, "è così buono."

And that's how I think carafe wines should ideally complement the fancy ones. Is it possible outside Italy? If it's possible anywhere, it's possible in New York.

- Marcy Swingle

the disputed Morandi wine list as of 3/23/07, in its entirety