Sensing a shift in public mood, a leading Italian restaurant remakes itself in the more casual mode of a country osteria.
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Fans of the former Due Terre Enoteca in Bernardsville will be glad to know that—having morphed into this satellite of chef Michael White’s acclaimed SoHo osteria—it retains many of the original’s strengths and gains some new ones. Like its sibling, Due Mari in New Brunswick, Due Terre—reborn in February as Osteria Morini—are projects of White’s Altamarea Group. The partners, managers and lead chefs form a sort of roving mix-and-match team. Executive chef Bill Dorrler, who opened Due Mari and then moved to the flagship Osteria Morini, is now in Bernardsville three to four days a week while things settle for chef de cuisine Kevin Knevals.
“Our concept isn’t so drastically changed,” Dorrler asserts. “It’s just evolving, bringing it around to where it needs to be to fit with the jeans-and-sports-jacket town of Bernardsville. There are many white-tablecloth places in town. We wanted to pick up on the definition of an osteria: a comfortable place centered around service and high-quality ingredients that’s comfortable for both families and a celebratory night out.” And, he adds, a place regulars will be tempted to visit multiple times a week to experience a relaxed, rustic atmosphere and meals that can be as simple as a salad and pizzette.
The biggest and most welcome change is to the dining area, now all on one level and with the previous half-wall separations gone. That, plus what Dorrler says is quadrupled soundproofing of the ceiling, makes what had been an intolerable noise level tolerable. The room still buzzes like an overpopulated beehive, but a table of four can converse comfortably. The décor is more informal; paper placemats replace tablecloths and wall doodads are meant to conjure a modest eatery in the countryside of Emilia-Romagna, from which the menu takes its cues. That menu—an abridged, tweaked version of the SoHo one—doesn’t depart drastically from Due Terre’s, which offered an appealing mix of easy-to-like antipasti, pizzette, pastas and grilled dishes.
The fresh, house-made pastas are especially rewarding, beginning with tiny tortellini in a big bowl of broth so rich with Parmigiano-Reggiano that it tastes downright buttery—and looks it, too. In fact, all the pastas include ingredients from the plush Emilia-Romagna larder: Parmigiano, butter, cream, prosciutto and mortadella, among them. Lasagna Bolognese features sheets of tender spinach noodles luxuriating in the region’s classic meat sauce and topped with squiggles of béchamel. A dollop of cream adds richness to the gramigna (ridged pasta in the shape of the letter J) tossed in already-rich pork-sausage ragù. Sometimes this piling on delivers too much of a good thing, as in the sedanini (small ridged tubes), where a few wisps of radicchio fail to offset an artery-choking triumvirate of cream, truffle butter and prosciutto. But most of the time the kitchen reins in indulgence just enough.
Most pastas can be had as a first or main course, and the generously proportioned pizzette can also serve as either. But crisp-crust lovers be warned: while the toppings and sauces are tasty, they rest on a soft, thick, doughy base. That might sound like Neapolitan style, but that’s giving it too much credit. You may be better off with starters like tender octopus braised in red wine and tossed with capers, black olives, peppers and chickpeas in a terrific red-wine vinaigrette, or calamari alla piasta, which veers away from the breaded, deep-fried routine. Herbed bread crumbs are mixed with Parmigiano and loosely stuffed into squid tubes. The stuffing melts and melds beautifully as the squid is pressed on the grill, and the dish is finished with a refreshing hit of tomato or citrus. The inspiration, Dorrler says, comes from a tiny seaside restaurant on stilts that he and White came across on a trip to Emilia-Romagna last summer.
The boneless duck breast exemplifies finesse and attention to detail. Its skin is crisp and charred from the grill, with a succulent interior that pairs perfectly with beluga lentils and red cabbage gently reduced with wine, cinnamon and a touch of shredded apple and potato. The cabbage is finished with a sweet-acid hit of saba (boiled-down grape must). Another winner is grilled branzino with salsa verde and a bracing, lemony salad of wild arugula.
As to service, my visits could be a tale of two restaurants. First visit, the server badly misreads our table. Without prompting, he offers his personal favorites at each course—often the highest-priced items. When we order a pizzette as part of an array of shared appetizers, he cautions that we might want to order two, since they’re “so small.” We are then astonished when a generous oval arrives. When this fellow is asked to suggest a wine from many lesser known varietals on the list, he offers Barolo, then Barbaresco, then Super Tuscan. Once he finally gets with the program, he recommends an $85 bottle. We make a more reasonable choice—Brotomagno’s wonderfully inky Nero di Troia at $38. Overly quick to refill our glasses, he asks during appetizers if we want a second bottle.
Second visit, our server volunteers a lone suggestion: one of the evening’s specials involving squid-ink spaghetti, which turns out to be excellent. Taking dessert orders, he cautions that the tiramisu is larger than most, so we might consider sharing. When asked to recommend a wine from two we have in mind—one at $28, the other at $50—he says he has never personally tasted them, so he will have Gerardo advise. Gerardo Giorgio, one of the managers (a Due Terre alum, like much of the management team), is not only super-informative, he gives equal attention to the merits of both bottles.
Which Osteria Morini will you encounter? Since the other staff members involved in my visits were delightful and perceptive, I’m going to say the latter.
We took our favored server’s advice and shared the massive tiramisu. It was as fluffy and flavorful a version as you’ll find. Equally delicious was the olive-oil cake, moist yet light and accompanied by strawberry-rhubarb compote, honey crème fraîche and mascarpone whipped cream with almond crumble. Like much of what’s laudable about this restaurant, it rewards while teetering on the edge of over the top.