For two years in a row now I've trounced Debbie in our Oscar pool. And though I have to wait until 2013 to collect last year's prize, this year we kept it pretty simple: winner picks the restaurant; loser pays. Which is why I would like to thank the Academy for the terrific Italian feast we enjoyed last Saturday evening at Morandi, the newest creation from Keith McNally, who already packs them in nightly at Schiller's Liquor Bar, Balthazar, and Pastis.
And it definitely was "evening": apparently the only two-top available at Morandi for people like us (i.e., not famous) was at 5:30, which is fine by me in terms of dining, but definitely diminished our chances for some celebrity spotting. No matter: the staff was friendly (though overly aggressive with the plate clearing); the warm, pretty dining room nearly full and definitely buzzing by 6:00; and the food delicious, up and down the menu.
We started with the excellent Finocchio Alla Cenere, a pile of perfectly grilled fennel and orange slices, bathed in bitter honey: the sharp citrus, mellow licorice, subtle sweetness all working together nicely. Then came the best dish of the meal—and another early contender for my favorite plate of the year—Polipetti E Sedano, an amazing grilled octopus sitting atop celery bits and black olives. It was lemony, oceany, oily, unbelievably tender, totally transcendent. Really, I was tempted to order another as soon as I was finished.
Next up were our main courses. I went for the Polpettine Alla Siciliana, which was five fat and flavorful meatballs, juicy and rich and stuffed with pine nuts, raisins and, as Debbie helpfully pointed out later on, garlic. This was a beautiful combination of flavors, made into a complete meal by my side of bright and nicely bitter (and thankfully not garlicky) Broccoli Rabe. I've read that chef Jody Williams brought these meatballs with her from her former job at nearby (and quite good) Gusto, and I'm glad she did. Meanwhile Debbie was loving her Pici al Limone, dense tubes of hand-rolled spaghetti given both zing and bite by lemon peel and plenty of parmesan. Finally came dessert, an almondy cake with berries that I'm struggling to recall more about, other than I thought it too ordinary, too dry, and the only weak spot of the meal.
Morandi is on Waverly Place and Charles Street, right near Seventh Avenue South. I hope to get back there soon... and definitely before my certain triumph on Oscar night, 2008.