In the interest of disclosure I was employed by Keith McNally for about 150 hours one winter back in my freelance days years ago. I believe it ended amicably; I quite often can be found at the north end of Balthazar’s bar having a couple dozen oysters with a Muscadet, followed by a bar steak with some cheapish Burgundy, a meal I greatly enjoy when I am hungry at the hours the Balthazar bar is approachable, like 2:30 pm on a weekday.
As far as Keith goes I happily imagine he has no idea who I am, a suspicion reinforced when dining in his proximity at Morandi the other night where my presence did not distract him in the slightest from running around the floor with a hopeful, earnest look, causing me to doubt there was any intention to make me uniquely comfortable or un.
I should also mention that wandering home along Greenwich one warm sunny day a couple of years ago I came across a newly opened restaurant with the most ridiculous chandelier ever and a huge hole in the center of its floor, sat down in a breezy entryway and fell in love with Jody Williams’ temerity in simple Italian fare.
By moving from Gusto to Morandi Jody and her food are further away from me by an avenue (which is forgivable), and in a far more cramped, awkward, contrived space (which may not be). The place is as bad as Chianti fiascos in recessed arches, distressed brick walls lit with harsh blue light, horribly uncomfortable mismatched café chairs and small tables crowded by a plate and bread plate per person, arranged in such an odd floor plan that accessing the bar, the exit, and or the bathroom requires some footwork and takes at least an extra minute than it should. There is no way to move directly from one end of this room to another, and judging from the amount of times my rickety chair was kicked by some member of the staff not even from one table to another.
Once nestled in chairs chosen after some exchanging with adjacent tables for the slightly more functional versions available, Downstairs, Bubby, Luh, Roar, Vhee, and I were greeted with a resounding “Buon Giorno” from our waiter in a convincingly not-native-to-New-York accent.
So far everything seemed in order. I could forgive the space and the chairs, after all McNally reinvented the “Paris bistro in New York” with Balthazar and Pastis and in general these places have chairs that encourage you to try to finish and pay for your meal within the forty-five minutes your seat will tolerate their seats.
In general McNally’s many successes have been cramped, slightly uncomfortable places full of people that are fun for crowds, providing good food and all the ingredients for a good time. Then this charming, pleasant young man went on a diatribe about Morandi offering “a unique, authentic Italian experience,” here in New York, two blocks from Babbo and one from Gusto where Jody used to serve the exact highlights (and the restaurant still does).
He went on to detail how they strongly suggest we get many appetizers to share, followed by pasta (it would be small enough, being authentic and all), and then obviously move on to entrées. I heard almost this same speech in college when the waiters at the new Romano’s Macaroni Grill put a five liter bottle of cruddy red wine in front of me and some pals asking that we keep track of our own glasses, “just like in Italy” (we could use the crayons provided to make hash marks on the butcher paper if we had trouble). It rang as manufactured then, and at that point I had only been to the major tourist cities of Italy where places resembling this exact room cater to the tourist notion of bona fide.
So, braced for authenticity and with our own version of our waiter’s plan we went with:
FRITTI Carciofi alla giudea fried artichokes with lemon: this is the dish that made me love Jody in the first place, not much more than trimmed immature artichokes hammered in an immersion fryer until the leaves on the outside that would otherwise be tough are browned mahogany and easily crunched. Inside is trapped the steam that softens this tough thistle’s heart. This is the food of a ballsy chef. To be this perfect you must appreciate the acrid notes of burnt olive oil while embracing the lovely bitterness of cynar oil in young artichokes, so deeply bitter when perfect that it makes even water seem sweeter (seriously not a wine dish). The good news is these little treasures of the Jewish ghetto in Rome are made with the same conviction they were at Gusto.
Bagna cauda Radishes in olive oil anchovies and garlic: Here somehow neither bagna (bath) nor cauda (hot). The beauty of bagna cauda should be that it is unapologetically fishy. It is made of three things – anchovies, garlic, and olive oil – warmed together and best paired to bitter vegetables. This was more smattered than bathed and tasted like oiled radishes, with the exception of one well-roasted garlic clove half I found that was somewhat reminiscent of the amalgam of all three flavors.
Prosciutto di Parma con gnocco fritto: this is the dish that could have made the chairs, the lacking fish flavors of the bagna cauda and the silly waiter speech all ok. I have never had a version of this dish that I did not love, until now. Like all Italian dishes there can be regional variety at places directly across a street too narrow for two Citroen C2s to pass each other. So the fact that this version of fried dough is different than those I am used to is fine with me; that Morandi’s misses the heart of the differing other versions I have tried is the dilemma. There are two components: the gnocco (basically immersion fried bread dough), and those wonderful hams of Parma with their beautifully flavorful fat. As far as the ham goes, the quality is fine even if it is a somewhat paltry serving at the price. As I prefer them, gnocco have the chew of bread while being light, moist, hot, and airy (hot being the key because their warmth warms the fat of the ham, in turn encouraging the ham’s aromas to release). Here, the texture is like a savory puff pastry, entirely hollow in the center, exchanging chew for bite, and giving up the ability to retain heat. There is also a disparity in portion. Perfectly prepared, the Prosciutto slices make it once around each puff. As served here they fit three times around with enormous overlap at the ends, losing any play of textures and nuance that might have existed.
ANTIPASTI Polpetti sedano Grilled octopus with celery and black olives: one baby octopus grilled exactly to the point where the suction cups are crunchy and the flesh has that pleasingly yielding bite. The octopus was allowed to shine, more garnished than dressed with sliced celery, parsley leaves, small dry cured olives, and a lightly acidulated olive oil dressing.
ANTIPASTI Burrata creamy mozzarella with roasted peppers and arugula: I don’t report on dishes that others eat and I only have a small taste of, but this was enough cheese for four people as an antipasto and, as part of what was being branded as an authentic Italian experience, this course made me crazy when Downstairs gave me a bite. First and foremost, burrata is not mozzarella. The two are made in similar manners, but burratta includes some of the whey trapped in the center with the cut, stretched curd giving it a gorgeous lactic zing and creamy consistency no mozzarella can match. The only way to kill this is to serve it cold. This was served out of the fridge cold, so cold in fact that we put it aside to come back to after entrées (which required us to defend it from no less than eight attempts by one of two busboys to clear it). When we came back to the cheese at the end of the meal it was still too cold to be creamy. A complete misunderstanding of an ingredient.
PIATTI del GIORNO DOMENICA Bollito misto: cottechino, beef short rib, veal tongue, capon breast (which a different waiter pronounced like Al’s last name), carrots, onions, very buttery mashed potatoes, and some cabbage all cooked together. I love bollito misto. Well made it is the odd cuts of older animals immersed in boiling water to seal in their juices and commingle their flavors, making the sum far greater than its parts. This dish was not the tragedy an adjacent table pronounced it to be; it was however far closer to Irish boiled brisket than the northern Italian dish its name would indicate. The short rib had been seared before going in the water leading it to be only slightly drier than the capon. The capon was obviously an attempt at tenderness over the flavor of a haggard old bird because it was dressed with salsa verde. Overall, the entire flavor had been boiled out of rather than into these cuts. Even my beloved cottechino seemed flat. As condiment, in the place of the mustard, vinegar, and horseradish I am used to, were roasted cipollini onions in a sugary sweet vin cotto facsimile (think store-brand balsamic). Without the uglier, more flavorful bits of traditional bollito misto like veal head and pig lungs, something needs to be added. Here they are asking a cottechino and maybe a clove or two to impart flavor to some pretty needy cuts which they are just not up to.
Back when I worked for Keith McNally it was a great job because Keith makes restaurants that make money, which makes him both a good restaurateur and employer. As a New York diner with many “authentic” Italian places to choose from, I was turned off by Morandi’s heavy-handed contrivance. Maybe Morandi would have blown me away years before Po. But this meal tasted and seemed like Italian heavily cleansed to play to an American palate of twenty years ago in a room for the same crowd, at today’s prices.
The truth may be that unlike the Parisian bistros, Russian vodka bars, and cocktail joints with nice rarebit in up and coming neighborhoods which we were lacking before McNally gave them to us, we have a lot of authentic Italian places, and the West Village is not wanting for a dependable good time place. The good news is we seem to have an unending willingness to accommodate another; all you need is sincerity in your product.
At this point it seems the restaurateur’s wish not to offend anyone and make money is overpowering the chef’s interpretation of flavors that are still somewhat uncommon around here, and that just doesn’t work for my type of diner. Jody’s food was, and hopefully again will be shamelessly proud authentic flavors, not faux authentic names, service or rooms (Gusto was at best an awkward room). Hopefully someone will report that Morandi has refocused and all the food has the sincerity of the artichokes, and I will try it again. Until then, I know how to fry artichokes.