When in Rome: “Industry Night” at Osteria Morini

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As a little kid, I always dreamed about being a grownup, and getting to decide exactly what I wanted to spend my money on. From the perspective of a child, it meant getting to buy as many Snickers and Whatchamacalits (a highly underrated candy, IMHO) as I could fit in my purse, seeing eight movies a week, and keeping up with my bimonthly subscriptions to Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-men. Yup, I was a pretty cool kid. The idea of “discretionary income” was an alien concept — all money is discretionary when your parents cover shelter, food and warmth, and your major concerns are pretty much confined to standardized tests and trying not to blow your allowance in one week.

I feel like most of my friends tended to spend what teenage money they had on largely the same type of stuff — slices of pizza, Starbucks lattes, songs from iTunes or videogames, and the occasional splurge on a pair of Converse or concert tickets. I’ve loved watching us all grow up and define our spending priorities — what makes the cut for a twenty-something devoting the majority of her budget to rent and utilities? These days, we all choose different indulgences, and frankly, I think we’re all justified to spend our money as we like. Most of my discretionary income goes towards eating, be it keeping my fridge stocked or hitting all the spots (and more) that appear on this blog. Could I be living on Cup of Noodle or PB&Js and be saving more than I am? Sure, but I’d like to believe that happiness should be a budget priority, too.

So although a certain black-hole of NYC dining expense is part of my standard arithmetic, I will also never turn down a good deal. Especially one of the caliber of “Industry Night” at Osteria Morini, a weekly pasta-themed bargain I took advantage of a couple snow storms back.

Osteria Morini is one of the more casual spots in chef Michael White’s Altamarea Group of high-end Italian restaurants, from sea-food centric Marea to his new steakhouse Costata, to the Midwestern-infused pizzeria Nicoletta. Even resting on the lower end of the affordability-scale, Osteria Morini is generally far from a cheap eat, and so when I heard about their “Industry Night” special, I jumped at the chance to finally try out one of White’s restaurants. The deal, running Monday nights from 9pm till close, discounts almost all of the pasta dishes down to $10 (from usually $20 or more), and offers bottles of Lambrusco for $28. Although you can’t get the pricier lasagna, risotto or polenta dishes, you still end up with about a dozen options of hand-made fresh pasta and stunning accompaniments.

So the Super Friends of Super Eating (aka, Mike, Jacob and I) assembled once more, and headed over to Osteria Morini, pretty damn hungry after waiting until 9pm to have some dinner (seriously, I don’t get how Europeans eat that late regularly).

 

First Impressions:

The warm and comfortable interior of Osteria Morini, complete with exposed brick walls.

The warm and comfortable interior of Osteria Morini, complete with exposed brick walls.

Osteria Morini is located on Lafayette, just half a block away from the Spring Street 6 train stop. The exterior balances on the edge of ostentatious, its name emblazoned on a large sign brightly lit in the winter evening gloom. Yet the interior is immediately recognizable as the understated Italian-American red-sauce joint, full of dark wood, accents of red on the walls and on the place settings and low-lighting that makes the case for intimacy amongst the hum of conversation and clinking of silverware.

 

A few retro postcards to make you miss the Old Country, plus the White House to make you love the New World.

A few retro postcards to make you miss the Old Country, plus the White House to make you love the New World.

A long bar takes up the front half of of the restaurant, starting a few feet from the entrance and running all the way back to the dining room. There are a few small tables wedged into the space across from the bar, an indication of the volume of diners Osteria Morini sees daily. The walls around the bar are covered in photos and framed retro postcards from America and Italy, while the dining room is adorned with home-style touches such as paintings and shelves lined with kitchen accoutrements, from wine glasses to pots and pans. We were seated at a banquet table in the back left corner of the restaurant, providing great views of both the bustling kitchen and the packed tables. Clearly this deal is not really “insider info” anymore (if it ever was).

The view from our table of the rest of the dining room.

The view from our table of the rest of the dining room.

A look back at the kitchen (and secret bread warming drawer).

A look back at the kitchen (and secret bread warming drawer).

The Food:

My first bottle of Lambrusco, and probably my last (though Jacob and Mike liked it).

My first bottle of Lambrusco, and probably my last (though Jacob and Mike liked it).

The game plan, as always, was drinking and overindulging in shared plates. With that in mind, we decided to make the most of Osteria Morini’s “Industry Night” deal, ordering some Lambrusco to start. I had never had Lambrusco, so deferred to Mike who picked a bottle of Fattoria Moretto off the wine list. This was my first sparkling red wine, lightly carbonated with a punch of sweetness at the start and tart acidity at the end. I’m glad I tried it, but I’m not sure I would order it again. I think I prefer my Prosecco and my Chianti in separate glasses.

At the suggestion of our server, we ordered a few starters to supplement our pastas, beginning with the Lamb Crudo Crostini and the Insalata Mista. For the pastas, we ordered the Stracci, the Tagliatelle, and the Spallina. I had just come off of splitting a Salty Pimp that afternoon with my mother (wow, that’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d write), so I opted out of dessert (ostensibly, though bites were had), but Jacob and Mike finished the meal with the Torta de Olio.

 

Excellent bread, but really, no olive oil?

Excellent bread, but really, no olive oil?

Our meal began with a basket of complimentary, thick cut focaccia. The bread was puffy and warm, pulled from a warmer drawer outside the kitchen and sliced just before it was served. You can see in the photo the crackly, salt-speckled crust and pillowy interior, leagues above the generic Italian bread thrown on the table at many restaurants. The only disappointment was that it was served solo — nary a pat of butter nor drop of olive oil in sight. I was perfectly happy to chow down on the bread, and maybe Michael White thinks it stands alone, but I’d like to try it with a bit of olive oil just for the sake of science.

 

The Lamb Crudo -- deceptively filling considering its petite size.

The Lamb Crudo — deceptively filling considering its petite size.

All of our food arrived pretty quickly, our appetizers appearing on the table before we’d even finished the bread. At first I was concerned about the portions of the Lamb Crudo (olive oil, chives), since the plating seemed to heavily favor the crostini over the meat. However, the richness of the tartare proved that the plate was balanced. Normally I’m not particularly into raw foods (see my gradual acclimation to sushi), but I am a big fan of lamb, so it seemed like a risk worth taking. I enjoyed the gaminess of the meat in contrast to the fresh herbs mixed in with it. The lamb was finely ground, giving it a soft, slippery mouthfeel that spread easily on the crostini. Osteria Morini earns more points in the bread box, since the slices were griddled instead of baked, preventing the almost-stale, cracker-like hardness that can come with bruschetta, when the bread just shatters in your mouth and spreads crumbs everywhere. Here the bread was thinly sliced, crunchy but still pliable, and a great vehicle for the crudo. All in all, I’m glad I tried it, although in terms of personal satisfaction, I’m not sure I would get it again. I definitely missed the caramelization and tender chew you get from cooked lamb, but maybe it’s simply a matter of me working my way up to the concept of raw proteins.

 

Our other appetizer was surprising in a different way -- imaginative, light and refreshing.

Our other appetizer was surprising in a different way — imaginative, light and refreshing.

I hate to sound like a broken record already (we haven’t even reached the entrees, Maggie!), but I was nervous about ordering the Insalata Mista (mixed greens salad, apples, seasonal vegetables, Morini vinaigrette) because of disappointing memories of Olive Garden lunches in my youth. Those salads were sad specimens of greenery, limp romaine lettuce topped with stale croutons, flavorless cucumbers, and a handful of grape tomatoes. However, the dish’s description suggested Osteria Morini had more up it’s salad sleeve, and sure enough, the Insalata Mista far exceeded expectations. It was a great mixture of greens — crunchy, chunky romaine intermingled with radicchio, some peppery arugula, and a little frisee. The sweet red apples were thinly sliced and tossed with the pomegranate seeds in between the vegetables, the whole shebang covered with a dressing that coated the salad without weighing it down, just the right mix of acid and sweet. Weird as it might be to say this, it was a memorable appetizer salad, a refreshing and light entryway into the heavier pasta course.

 

The Stracci, crippled by its plating.

The Stracci, crippled by its plating.

Our pasta dishes arrived basically at the same time, so I’ll tackle them in order of increasing favorability. The Stracci (wide ribbon pasta, braised wild mushrooms, rosemary oil) was the least favorite of our choices, although I think I enjoyed it more than Jacob and Mike. Unfortunately, the dish suffered due to its plating — the long pieces of pasta clumped together, like an overpacked container of chow fun noodles. Instead of distinct pieces of wide ribbon, you ended up getting small stacks of layered, slightly gluey pasta. It was clearly fresh and hand-made, but the delicacy of that craftsmanship was lost when piled in a small bowl, which made it difficult to get a bite that had all of the components of the dish in it, and led to the pasta generally overwhelming the rest of the ingredients. However, when tasted separately, the mushrooms were great, and pairing them with rosemary is always a dynamite combination. I especially appreciated the light sauce, considering the weight of the pasta, and the parmesan on top was deftly applied, although again it was hard to mix it into the bulk of the dish because of the mass of starchy noodles. It seems like simply plating the Stracci in a longer or more oval dish would make it far more successful, since the simple ingredient list seems geared to have the pasta shine.

 

The Tagliatelle -- Michael White's version of mama's bolognese.

The Tagliatelle — Michael White’s version of mama’s bolognese.

The Tagliatelle (ragù antica, parmigiano) had been highlighted in a couple of reviews of Osteria Morini that I read, so I pushed for us to order it. I’d wager this dish best captures the aim of Osteria Morini, at least on the pasta side — classic, homestyle cooking executed with real skill and presented in a pretty, if reserved manner. The Tagliatelle was pretty much an elevated bolognese, a simple but stellar display of familiar flavors. The antica ragu combines veal, pork and beef, crumbled into a classic base of tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices. Here, the wavy strands of pasta were the perfect vehicle, allowing a twirl of the fork to scoop up the chunky sauce into the little crevices between noodles. The fresh cheese on top added a nice salty addition to the meat and harmonized the elements of the dish. It seems obvious to say, but you don’t realize how shockingly refreshing authentic red sauce is until you take a break from the Prego jar. Jarred pasta sauce is so sweet, where as at Osteria Morini the sauce never overwhelms the palate — the natural sweetness of the tomatoes is balanced but their acidity and the floral herbs. It’s visually evident that the Tagliatelle was just a far more balanced plate, since you could see the nearly equal proportions of meat and sauce to noodles.

 

The Spallina -- double the ravioli, double the fun.

The Spallina — double the ravioli, double the fun.

As satisfying as the tasty, but recognizable Tagliatelle was, I enjoyed the Spallina (double ravioli, squacquerone cheese, rabbit, porcini) the most out of our pastas because it took an item  I knew (ravioli) and stuffed it with an unfamiliar filling. Rabbit seems to be increasingly popular on NYC menus these days, but I have only had it a handful of times in my life, so I leapt at the chance to try Osteria Morini’s take. I also felt it was the most visually appealing in terms of presentation. I don’t think I’d ever seen double ravioli before, so I was delighted to find our bowl filled with petite ravioli pillows with a divot in the middle, splitting up the pockets of rabbit, mushroom and squacquerone (a soft, spreadable cow’s milk cheese). The dish seemed to be drizzled in some sort of balsamic reduction, acidic with a hint of sweetness against the umami-forward filling of mushrooms and cheese. The rabbit was subtle, just a hint of gaminess. There just seemed to be a perfect ratio of filling to pasta, allowing both the interior and the exterior of the dish to shine. I would definitely order a bowl of the Spallina for myself over the other dishes — it was new and intriguing, but still somehow instantly familiar and comforting (probably the cheese, cheese makes everything comfy).

 

The Torta di Olio -- an ode to olive oil sure to satisfy fans.

The Torta di Olio — an ode to olive oil sure to satisfy fans.

Now I had every intention of abstaining from dessert, but damn, it’s hard to resist a piece of cake in front of you.  And the Torta di Olio (olive oil cake, citrus marmalade, ricotta crema, espresso gelato) was a pretty sexy looking specimen, a thick slice of golden cake glistening with mouthwatering  sheen. I’ve never really liked olive oil cakes, but Osteria Morini’s version almost made me a convert — it was like a thick slice of pound cake soaked in oil. The taste was clean and instantly recognizable, and while it still hasn’t won me over, this was clearly a well-done version of the dessert. The accompaniments ranged in texture and flavor, from the crunch of the nut crumble to the silky richness of the ricotta crema, to the potent bitterness of espresso gelato, flecked with visible bits of beans. Like the Tagliatelle and the Lamb Crudo, this was a case of a well-executed classic dish incorporating high quality ingredients. All three were satisfying, especially if you’re already a fan of the dishes in most iterations, but I found the more unconventional plates at Osteria Morini to be the most memorable.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, it’s hard to argue against the value of a deal like Osteria Morini’s “Industry Night,” and I’d happily come back another Monday to try some of the other pastas and appetizers. From the restaurant’s general atmosphere to the service and the food, everything felt approachable and relaxing, intended to remind the diners of a night out at the neighborhood trattoria. The only complaint I had (which happens at a lot of restaurants when you order a separate beverage) is that the staff could have been more attentive to our water glasses, but I’m an extraordinarily thirsty person, so this might not bother others as much. Basically, if you can splurge, go whole hog and visit Osteria Morini any night of the week — try the risotto and tell me how it is! But if you’re picking and choosing with your grownup indulgences, check out “Industry Night” on Mondays and have yourself a rustic, homey meal that won’t burn a hole in your wallet. That way you can still buy your weight in Snickers bars.

 

Osteria Morini

218 Lafayette St.

http://www.osteriamorini.com/

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From Nostalgia to Next Steps: Vivoli Il Gelato at Macy’s Herald Square

One of the themes I hope I’ve expressed over the course of this blog is my personal belief in the value of context when it comes to food. While certain dishes can linger in your mind due to their astonishing flavor profile, more often than not, the nostalgia we feel towards a certain meal derives from our memories of the occasion — the company, the conversation, etc. Recent scientific studies have shown that context affects the experience of eating on the most basic levels, from the type of dish you use to the material of your utensils. The steak I had at Peter Luger was certainly outstanding, but what made that night so fun was the anticipatory glee of my friends, the quirky service, and the halo of legendary status that enshrouded the restaurant.

Context has everything to do with my memories of eating and drinking in Rome. After 3 months of living in increasingly damp and chilly Glasgow, I scheduled a weekend trip to Rome in the last few weeks of my semester abroad. By that point the Scottish winter was definitely settling in, with freezing rain and snow soaking through my inappropriately American sneakers and bestowing a malevolent and interminable frizz upon my scalp. With the bulk of my finals work behind me, I hopped aboard the Continental equivalent of the Chinatown bus — good ol’ RyanAir– and fled southeast. I distinctly remember walking through some ruins near the Roman Forum and seeing a small grove of orange trees in bloom, a physical symbol of the brightness and thriving life around me, far from the early sunsets and slush-slicked slopes of my dorm back at the University. And oh, did I gorge myself in Italy, seizing upon the fresh pasta, biting espresso, and of course, the gelato. Like many of my fellow tourists, I found a way to have gelato every day of my trip, reveling in the creamy thickness of each scoop, the richness of the slivered chocolate in the Stracciatella, the goopy caramel swirls. I know I didn’t hit the haute cuisine of Rome during my stay (in fact, I’m pretty sure I ate at many a restaurant the locals would sneer at), but by taking a step back to examine the context, my rapturous gastronomic experience is easily explained. It was a break, an escape in every sense of the word, from schoolwork, responsibilities, and endless cafeteria meat pies and curries. Add in the fact that I was basically surrounded by works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, and you can understand why to this day I enthusiastically argue the merits of Rome, and continue to wish fervently for the chance for a return trip.

With this kind of overwhelmingly positive nostalgia, it’s no surprise that I hold the gelato I had in Italy in the highest esteem, upon a pedestal that may be too lofty to reach in reality. When I mentioned a new gelato place called Vivoli Il Gelato to Jacob a few weeks back, he excitedly asked if it was owned by the same cherished Vivoli he experienced in Florence. A quick bit of Googling revealed that indeed it was, and so of course we had to see how authentic Italian gelato would fare against the recent triumph of American-bred Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Could sourcing the homeland bring me back to the bliss of yester-year?

 

First Impressions:

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

Vivoli’s location is liable to make a New Yorker cringe. The gelateria is not tucked away in some hole-in-the-wall corner of Red Hook as the hip foodie might hope, but instead placed smack dab in tourist-filled Herald Square, on the sixth floor of the flagship Macy’s. I’ll admit to having a true distaste for the area, generally overflowing with sightseers stumbling from Penn Station to the Empire State Building, or minimizing available sidewalk space by lingering over the window displays. But if you struggle through the crowds and hop onto the elevators on the 34th St side of Macy’s, you’ll shoot up to the sixth floor and be treated to the gorgeous views that make up a large part of the appeal of Stella 34 Trattoria, the department store’s  mammoth new restaurant/cafe.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Stella 34 takes advantage of its height above the hustle and bustle, featuring a wide open, airy space decked out in swathes of white tile, accented by black chairs and benches. The bulk of the seating (both for table service and takeaway) is situated next to the giant windows looking east over Herald Square. It was a clear day when we visited, resulting in a ton of sunlight pervading every corner of the restaurant.

 

The Food:

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli's small corner of the cafe.

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli’s small corner of the cafe.

Along with Vivoli‘s gelato, Stella 34 Trattoria serves sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas, salads, and pastries, and we couldn’t help but be inundated with the delicious smells of melting cheese and sizzling meat as we ate our gelato. It’s a great move by Macy’s, taking advantage of the relative dearth of high quality, quick-service restaurants near Penn Station. I would definitely meet someone at Stella 34 for a quick bite before hopping on a train or bus, or to warm up post harried holiday shopping come December.

A passel of possible scoops.

A passel of possible scoops.

But this visit was all about Vivoli, and the question of whether authentic Italian gelato can find a home in the pantheon of American commercialism. Vivoli’s section of the cafe is located on the opposite side of the seating area, facing out onto the houseware and dining department. The menu states that flavors change seasonally, but during our visit Vivoli had 13 options to choose from. All the gelati offered were renditions of Italian classics, from basic Crema (aka sweet cream) to Pistachio to Stracciatella. While Vivoli does not offer the physical evidence of the gelato making process, like Il Laboratorio (and therefore the slight air of mysterious sugar science), what they do provide is a clear-cut explanation of the natural and specialty-sourced ingredients in their gelato. The menu does not describe what each flavor is, but rather lists the ingredients that go into it. For example, the Pistachio is listed as “Bronte pistachios from Sicily, Italy, whole fresh milk, fresh eggs, sugar” (emphasis theirs).

The menu displayed by the gelato case -- it's all about the ingredients, baby.

The menu displayed by the gelato case — Vivoli lets their ingredients speak for themselves..

After some serious deliberation, we decided on the Bacio, the Croccante, the Fragola, and the Limon. Unsurprisingly, since the shop is located in a major tourist area, this is not inexpensive gelato. We opted to share the largest size, the Grande, which nets you up to 4 different flavors and costs $6.75 (full disclosure: we also just wanted to try as many flavors as possible). To be fair to Vivoli, though, you do end up with a sizable serving, and I thought there was more than enough for two people split. And as their spare ingredient list would suggest, you are getting a pretty damn high quality dolce for your dollars.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Limon, Bacio, Croccante, and Fragola.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Croccante, Bacio, Limon, and Fragola.

I was drawn to the Bacio (hazelnuts from italy, cocoa powder, whole milk, farm eggs, sugar) and the Croccante (almonds from italy, whole mlik, farm eggs, sugar) because of my gelato experiences in Seattle. After loving the Bacio di dama from D’Ambrosio Gelato, I was excited to see a similar profile at Vivoli. This flavor, however, was closer to frozen Nutella, with a deep cocoa taste and a nice crunch from the hazelnuts. I hate to say it, but I think I’m now a full-on chocolate/hazelnut convert — I still don’t particularly like hazelnuts on their own, but I’ve found I really enjoy the combination. The Bacio ended up being the knockout champ at Vivoli — with its decadent, dark cocoa plus the sweet, buttery bite of hazelnuts, I’m hoping that this is not one of the seasonal flavors that will get rotated out.

You may remember how I waxed rhapsodic over the Toasted Almond gelato I had at Fainting Goat Gelato in Seattle. I’m pretty sure I will now eat anything that is almond-related or almond-adjacent, so it’s no surprise that I was thoroughly satisfied by the Croccante. It was my second favorite behind the Bacio, just absolutely fantastic — delicate almond flavor, creamy texture, sweet without coating your teeth in sugar.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

The Fragola (fresh strawberry, sugar, water) and Limon (fresh lemons, sugar, water) were actually sorbets, since a sorbet is defined by the lack of dairy. Both had the strong, natural taste of their base fruit ingredients. Of all the gelati we tried, the Limon had the least creamy consistency, reminding me of the Italian ices I used to buy at local pizzerias growing up (but with way fewer additives). It was very fresh, and extremely tart, tasting pretty much like frozen lemonade. It was refreshing in small doses, but despite Jacob and my deep devotions to dessert (and cleaning our plates like good children), we actually left a bit of this in the cup, finding it just a little too overpowering in the end.

Jacob had declared that the Fragola gelato he had in Italy was unreal, so that was the one flavor I knew we were going to order going in. It reminded me of Yoplait strawberry yogurt, if Mr. Yoplait himself had picked the strawberries from the vine and hand-crafted the dish for you. Although I love strawberries themselves, I’m usually a little more tentative about strawberry ice cream, generally avoiding the pink stripe in the rare occasions I have to eat Neapolitan. However, I will admit that this was definitely a superior product. I didn’t regret ordering it, but I would probably opt for another one of the sorbets next time around, especially because I expect the sorbet selection will be the part of the menu most dependent on the season.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Visiting Vivoli Il Gelato was a great exercise in contrast after so recently experiencing Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Both companies make an exceptional product, but Vivoli is much more mainstream, making traditional flavors with simple ingredients, rather than the mad scientist approach of Il Laboratorio (although I suppose that’s just something to take for granted, considering their name). While I can’t speak to the consistency of Vivoli compared to their native production in Florence, their gelato I had in New York was impressive in both execution and taste. It makes me curious about the rest of the offerings at Stella 34 Trattoria, and if they meet the high mark set by Vivoli.

Can any new experience truly surpass the heady heights of a cherished memory? Perhaps we shouldn’t aim as high as that — maybe it’s enough to be content with making some wonderful new ones. Carpe diem, or carpe gelato, in this case. And maybe there’s some merit to stripping off our jaded New Yorker coats once in a while to bask in the bliss of touristy ignorance. So if you have a bit of shopping to do, you might as well taste some superb gelato at Vivoli while you’re at it. Sure, you may have to be shell out a few more bucks per scoop, but just imagine that you’re taking a trip to Italy and have to deal with the Euro exchange rate. At least this time you’re saving the cost of a flight.

 

Vivoli Il Gelato (at Stella 34 Trattoria)

Macy’s Herald Square

151 W. 34th St., Sixth Fl.

http://www.patinagroup.com/restaurant.php?restaurants_id=139