I didn’t used to be such a stranger to Italian food. I grew up with Italian home cooking, and when I was a kid, my parents and I went out for ridiculously good Italian more than we did anything else. But these days, things are different: I don’t have a single Italian restaurant I’m comfortable eating at, and I’m not eating my mom’s cooking any more than once or twice a month. I cook the occasional pasta dish, sure—but I don’t do it well. All told, then, I hardly eat the stuff. Shit sucks. Or it did, at least.
Until a few weeks ago, when a reader sent me an email about Altamarea Group, the insanely allergy-aware hospitality company owned by Wisconsin-born pasta legend Michael White. Altamarea has a bunch of restaurants, and each and every one is as allergy-friendly as, say, Blue Smoke—but most are far more nut-filled than I’m used to, and they’re pretty far out of my price range, too. Still, I wanted to give one a try. And after some stressing, I ended up with Morini, purely because its menu is a little less nutty than the others, and, well, because it’s among the cheapest of the bunch.
Now. Trying new restaurants is always nerve-racking, even when they’re virtually nut-free. Add some nuts to the menu and I’m guaranteed to be an actual basket case for at least the duration of my first three meals. But not at Morini. The first time I went, I was nervous, sure. But their shit is so together that not even I, Queen Anxiety, was able to find much to stress about. The servers seem to know every ingredient in every dish, and they’re unusually forthcoming about what might have had a chance to get cross-contaminated, too. They’re happy to relay allergy-related messages to the kitchen, and whoever’s back there cooking is great about sending servers out to double-check on whether you’re good with this, that, or the other ingredient, too.
Eating at Morini, then, is totally painless. But it does require a lot more care and consideration than a meal at the average Nut-Free New York restaurant. That’s not to say a Morini meal isn’t worth that extra effort—it is, but you ought to know what you’re getting into, and you shouldn’t get into it if you aren’t comfortable with thinking and trying. I can’t recap all of Morini’s allergen information; it’s too complex, and it changes too often. Rather, determining what’s safe for you is a job for you, your server, and the chef. It’s not a hard job, but it’s a job nonetheless, and if you have food allergies, you ought to go in with that in mind. (Of course, it’s your server who’ll be doing most of the work. And that’s a good thing, because Morini’s are fucking all-stars. Some are more openly and obviously proactive than others, but it seems that absolutely all of them at least do what’s necessary behind the scenes.)
Asking questions helps (“Is this bread made in house?” “Are the prosciutto and the mortadella cut on the same slicer?”), but one of the best things about Morini is the fact that you can expect to be taken care of and looked out for even if you don’t take on the role of hyper-cautious investigator. There’s no way you could ever expect to know all the right questions to ask, anyway—but that’s all right, because Morini’s staff is so allergy-aware that you won’t have to do any legwork. You can—and if you do, they won’t make you feel bad about your million-and-a-half questions, nor will they give you any trouble whatsoever about double-checking on the specifics of a piece of bread (or whatever)—but you won’t end up dead on the floor if all you offer is a quick “I’m allergic to tree nuts and need my meal to be free from even trace amounts, please.”
But onto the food itself, which is no doubt the real best thing about the place. My first time, I started with the burrata, and it was everything I was hoping for. I ditched the elsewhere-made bread it’s usually served with, and the crispy prosciutto, too (as it’s sliced on a cutting board that’s shared with something or other that contains walnuts), but I was able to eat the cheese itself and the strawberries it comes with, and…well, it was burrata. What’s there to say? It was creamy. Really creamy. Entirely perfect.
Next, I moved onto the garganelli—”pasta quills, cream, peas, truffle butter, prosciutto,” but without the prosciutto—which is pictured second above, though under some really abysmal lighting. For real, though: That shit was good. The quills were perfectly al dente; the truffle butter was plenty truffle-y, but not the slightest bit overbearing; and the peas were flavorful enough to keep me from even remembering the fact that the dish was meant to be topped with prosciutto. Really, the sauce was so good that I had a hard time keeping myself from licking the plate clean—so while I’d initially been a little worried that the dish would be just a little too simple, I’m happy to report that it’s, uh…not.
That night, I also tried Sam’s torcia—”squid ink pasta, seppia & shrimp ragù,” pictured (in daylight!) at the top of this post—and to my delight, it was just as good. Because our server went out of his way to tell us that he couldn’t guarantee the usual breadcrumb topping would be entirely free from cross-contamination, we decided to forego it altogether, but it didn’t matter, because the dish was absurdly satisfying, texture-wise. And the sauce has a depth to it that I really wasn’t expecting. It looks one-note tomatoey, and it smells sort of one-note tomatoey, but it tastes like so much more than just tomato. I can’t say just what it’s like—I’m hopeless at these sorts of things, unfortunately—but I can say that it’s lovely, and that it’s secured the torcia’s status as one of my top recommendations.
The tagliatelle, served with bolognese and parmesan (and pictured third), is great, too. The texture of the pasta is spot-on, and the flavor of the bolognese is, too. Is this dish as exciting as some of the others? No, definitely not. It’s just tagliatelle and bolognese, sans any luxed-up add-ins. But! It’s a perfect execution of tagliatelle and bolognese, and sometimes, that’s just what I want. Will it ever become my go-to Morini order? Probably not. But will I insist on keeping it in my rotation? Take a wild guess.
I’m also in love with the raviolo (immediately above), a brunch special served with black trumpet mushrooms and filled with a pea-tasting ricotta stuffing and—!!!—a beautiful, undisturbed egg yolk. I’ve been lusting after something like this ever since I watched Anne Burrell attempt to teach her team to make raviolo al uovo on Worst Cooks in America—it was quite the episode, let me tell you—but I was finally starting to come to terms with the fact that there didn’t seem to be any way I’d ever manage to find an allergy-friendly version. By the time I discovered this dish, though, Morini had already changed my game in about half a million ways. So I guess I should’ve expected this. But I didn’t.
Anyway, it’s fantastic. The black trumpet mushrooms taste more like chicken skins than mushrooms—a good thing, don’t worry—and the raviolo itself is out-of-this-world delicious. The skin (does anyone call it that?) is paper-thin; the pea-ricotta filling is subtle, but decidedly present; the egg yolk, should you find it in yourself to not slurp it up in a single bite, pairs beautifully with the rest of the dish; and the whole thing is doused with some good-ass olive oil that does plenty to liven it all up. It’s a small dish, and certainly not the one you’d want to choose if you’re feeling particularly ravenous—but it’s so delicate, so refined, so goddamn good that I can’t help but deem it worthwhile in its own right.
Every single one of Michael White’s pasta dishes is excellent, though. You won’t need my opinions (or anyone else’s, for that matter) to steer you in the right direction, because there is no right direction. Choose any of the 12 pastas on Morini’s menu—or any of their daily specials, which are just as good—and you’re sure to be fine. More than fine. But do be sure to pick a pasta (or set of pastas, sharing encouraged), because they’re obviously Morini’s strong suit. All the rest you’d expect is available, too—cured meats, cheese platters, salads, seafood, all sorts of meat dishes, and a bunch of other stuff, too—but it’s the pastas (and perhaps only the pastas) that are really, truly worth a special trip.
They so are, though. Worth the special trip, I mean. And on Sunday and Monday evenings, after 9pm, Morini offers them for $12 each, which is absolutely not a deal you want to pass up. (Otherwise, they’ll run you $25-ish each, which is quite a bit, I suppose, given the sizes of the portions.) That said, it’s a little tough to get a reservation during those golden hours—I like to book my Pasta Nights a few weeks in advance, so I don’t end up getting stuck with, like, the 10:45 slot—but those $12 plates are well worth the effort, especially if you can bring a friend or six to swap bites with.
Morini, in general, is well worth the effort. I mentioned that it’s a little extra work, and it is—but the food’s so much fun, and the staff really does make the whole discussing-and-communicating thing as painless as possible. So they serve a bunch of food I can’t eat, sure. It gets crowded-ish in there, and loud-ish, and reservations sometimes require some foresight, especially when there’s discounted pasta at play. The meals aren’t cheap—but they are for an Altamarea restaurant, and prices aren’t unreasonable, given the quality of the food. And as for those other quasi-complaints…
I’m telling you. Worth it.