Cucina de Balthazar

032607 article moira Cucina de BalthazarAs he did with Balthazar, Keith McNally has once again set a stage where the play is about eating and the actors are the diners. This time it’s not a Paris bistro, but a rustic trattoria somewhere in the hills of Italy. Morandi’s low, beamed ceiling is hung with wooden chandeliers topped with small brown boutique lampshades. Its raw brick walls are lined with backlit rows of straw-covered Chianti bottles. The floors are made of wide wooden planks and old Italian tiles. The tables are set with dishcloth napkins and small tumblers, and cheerful waiters clad in long burlap aprons deliver carafes of wine. The lighting is beautiful; its golden glow makes a still-life of the wooden bowls of lemons and pears set out on the rough-hewn country kitchen sideboards.

Within days—actually, hours—of Morandi’s opening, the blogs had blasted into action, posting reviews, comments, even cell-phone snapshots of the food and dining room. Eater declared “Morandi fever.” Everyone, it seemed, began piling into Mr. McNally’s new Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village the minute the soap came off the windows.

Of course, it was fully booked when I called for a dinner reservation. So when I was told walk-ins were welcome, I decided to do just that.

The restaurant is on the ground floor of an undistinguished, postwar red brick apartment building on the corner of Charles Street and Waverly Place, just off Seventh Avenue. At the front desk a hostess explained that the wait would be at least an hour, probably longer, which was as I’d expected, so a friend and I made our way to the packed bar. The two seats next to me were occupied by those oversized handbags that my Observer colleague Simon Doonan once likened to elephant testicles. Their BlackBerry-wielding owners stood guard over them. I told my companion that I thought it was rather selfish to claim a coveted barstool with a handbag. “You don’t understand bar etiquette,” he said.

We ordered vodka cocktails. They came in tall juice glasses: the best cosmopolitan I’ve ever had, made pleasantly tart from fresh grapefruit juice, and a slightly sweet drink made with limoncello, mint and “muddled” dried cherries. “Don’t forget to eat the cherries; they’re the best part,” said the waiter.

I’ve known Mr. McNally ever since he, too, was a waiter—and a maitre d’—at One Fifth Avenue, before he opened Odeon in Tribeca in 1980. Since then, he’s never had a restaurant that wasn’t a hit; his string of successes includes Pravda, Schiller’s, Pastis and, of course, Balthazar. Morandi (named for the Bolognese still-life painter of bottles and vases) is Mr. McNally’s first Italian restaurant. The chef is the estimable Jody Williams, snapped up from Gusto around the block.

At Morandi, Ms. Williams continues with her particular zesty style of regional Italian cooking, bringing many of the dishes she served at Gusto: fried artichokes with crackling, bronzed leaves; plump, soft meatballs laced with pine nuts and raisin in a thick tomato sauce; and luscious fried green olives rolled in breadcrumbs, stuffed with pork and cheese.

Oiled, charred octopus is garnished with slices of crisp green celery, black olives, red pepper and parsley. Translucent slices of bass carpaccio are dotted with red pepper, capers and salsa verde. A greaseless fritto misto piled on the plate includes sardines, squid and tiny whitebait not much bigger than a piece of orzo. Ms. Williams loves sardines (and so do I). They appear not only in the fritto misto, but with pine nuts and raisins in a pasta con sarde (a traditional Sicilian dish) and as a first course, served with tomatoes, pecorino and mint.

You’ll want to taste everything on this menu. Dried and fresh pasta includes hand-rolled spaghetti with lemon and Parmesan, spinach ravioli with butter and sage, and a hearty bucatini all’amatriciana with guanciale, an unsmoked Italian bacon. A risotto of sage, mushrooms and blueberries sounded so weird (and not exactly seasonal) that I had to try it. It turned out to be wonderful: the sweetness of the cooked blueberries popping in your mouth, playing off the creaminess of the rice and the earthy flavor of the mushrooms.

Fried skate in a light batter is served en saor, with a bracing mix of marinated red onions, pine nuts and raisins. Chunks of rabbit are cooked in lardo (salt-cured pig fat) with fennel pollen, served with roast potatoes and rosemary, great with a side order of spinach.

The veal chop, layered with prosciutto and fontina cheese, was unremarkable, and not worth the $45 price tag. It was a shame, too, that the calf’s liver Veneziana was overdone, because it came in a fine red wine sauce; and grilled branzino, albeit perfectly cooked, wasn’t very fresh.

Desserts include a lemon ricotta tart, small crunchy fried cannelloni and a terrific special of the day: sliced prickly pear marinated in pomegranate juice with slices of blood orange.

The all-Italian wine list has many good choices at reasonable prices and 20 regional wines available by the glass, half-carafe and carafe. The carafes hold about 1¹/3 of a bottle. The first night I came here, two of us ordered one each, red and white. We had those small glass carafes in mind; the waiter must have wondered what sort of drinkers we were. I hope the kitchen enjoyed our leftovers.

Of course Morandi invites comparison with Balthazar, the jewel in Mr. McNally’s crown. It’s just as noisy, and general conversation at a table for four is difficult. But Balthazar’s lofty ceilings and spacious dining room compensate for the high decibel level. In contrast, Morandi feels cramped and claustrophobic. The round corner tables for two are fine, though. And I gather there will be outdoor dining when the weather gets warm: Now that sounds like a great idea.