630 Old Country Rd., Garden City, 516-604-0870, osteriamorini.com
SERVICE: The large and friendly staff could use a few more seasoned hospitality veterans; rookie mistakes are not uncommon.
AMBIENCE: The multi-room space leans hard on the Italian-farmhouse theme.
ESSENTIALS: Open for lunch / brunch and dinner 7 days a week, wheelchair accessible, shopping mall parking lot
There’s a new pasta sheriff in town and his name is Michael White. At Roosevelt Field’s Osteria Morini, the acclaimed chef is putting out tagliatelle, cappelletti and spaghetti that are worthy of the four Michelin stars his 18 restaurants have earned worldwide.
White, whose Manhattan restaurants include Marea and Ai Fiori, may be the face of the empire, but it's chef di cucina Andrew Minitelli whose Long Island kitchen is already a well-oiled machine at the two-month mark.
Service, I must state up front, needs more oil. On one of my visits, a series of personable hosts and servers seemed to feel no urgency about taking orders, bringing bread, offering grated cheese or figuring out how to arrange plates on our tiny table for four.
Such complaints were largely forgotten when the spaghetti pomodoro showed up. I had forgotten how marvelous the most ubiquitous pasta dish in the world could be; Osteria Morini’s springy, housemade spaghetti and bright tomato sauce reminded me. While the menu draws from all over Italy, its focus is on Emilia-Romagna, among whose contributions to world gastronomy are prosciutto di Parma, mortadella, Parmesan cheese (all of which, and much more, are featured on the restaurant's "batillardo" boards) plus balsamic vinegar and the myriad pastas based on the “sfoglia,” a freshly made sheet of egg pasta. On Long Island, I’ve not had better cappelletti, here stuffed with truffled ricotta, nor tagliatelle. Note that the Bolognese ragu that dresses the tagliatelle is the meaty, virtually tomato-less sauce that they make in Bologna.
All the pastas are priced at $25 and portions are generous. But don’t let them divert your attention from some of the excellent appetizers, among them a coil of hauntingly seasoned chicken-fennel sausage with broccoli-rabe pesto, braised octopus on a bed of polenta or meatballs made with prosciutto and mortadella. The star of the starters was the zuppa di farro, in which sage, prosciutto, porcini mushrooms and croutons gave a savory assist to the ancient strain of wheat. It needed not a lick of salt nor sprinkling of cheese to make me feel like a Roman soldier who had just subdued Gaul and was packing it in for the night with my salary of salt and supper of farro pottage.
Seafood salad needed a lot more salt and lemon to lift the flavors, but the only real dud among the starters was a huge, dispiriting heap of arugula that taught me that “Lambrusco vinaigrette” is code for “sweet salad dressing.” Be forewarned, fellow balsamic avoiders.
I can’t imagine dining at Morini without at least sharing a bowl of pasta (half portions are not available) but you could make a fine, keto-friendly meal of starter plus entree. The 16-ounce veal chop is a stunner, two inches thick (I carry a tape measure), pink from edge to edge and napped with a pancetta cream. Do not order the veal Petroniana by accident: This joyless cutlet topped with ham and melted Fontina cheese is the seeming result of a kitchen that thinks it is too refined to serve veal Parmesan and, so, comes up with something worse.
Off the hoof, I heartily recommend the pretty-in-pink duck breast, cheered on by glazed onions, sweet-and-sour figs and sweet-potato puree. The kitchen handled the scallops beautifully, even though their garnish of Brussels sprouts, endive, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and celery root was unpleasantly fussy.
The restrained tiramisu, with its high proportion of ladyfinger to mascarpone, is the dessert you should save room for.
Considering that it is appended to an opulent suburban shopping mall, the décor here is almost comically rustic, all dark wood and rough brick, with a display of beat-up farm-kitchen implements here, a series of rooster prints there. Unless you’re seated at one of the corner banquettes, it’s not a terribly comfortable space and it tends toward cold. And dim.
Yet all my quibbles about Osteria Morini were alleviated when dining at the bar, partially lit by the open kitchen and staffed by a cadre of engaged, charming and highly professional bartenders. You can talk with them about the negronis on tap, the terrific, all-Italian wine list and the finer points of Emilia-Romagna’s singular sparkler, Lambrusco. (Though, sadly the only one available by the glass is a rather wan rosé, with none of the wine’s usual inky, fruity wallop.) The rigatoni with wild mushrooms I ate while chatting with Matt the bartender was one of the best dinners I had in 2019.