Michael White’s Upper East Side Newcomer: Ristorante Morini

Trying out Michael White’s new venture on the Upper East Side was an easy decision for me given its convenient location near my apartment. I had also been anxiously awaiting the restaurant’s opening for months. Anyone who follows Michael White will be able to tell you he has been a busy man the past couple years opening anything from  a casual osteria to pizzeria and even an Italian steakhouse. While I am a huge fan of his culinary feats at Marea, I do think some of the more recent openings deviate from that which he is so good at – high quality Italian ingredients with a focus on seafood and an overall pristine dining experience. I feel like he got his focus back with this one –  Ristorante Morini – and believe it represents where White truly excels.

The space is elegant and fit for a festive occasion. Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary, business meal or other celebratory occasions Ristorante Morini should be added to the list of Upper East Side Side possibilities. The bottom floor is a slightly more casual bar room with a number of tables as well as a sophisticated bar that’s great for enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail or an alternative place for two-somes to more casually take a meal. I have written before about the wonderful experience I had eating dinner at Marea’s bar and the scene at Ristorante Morini felt very familiar. The staff was very friendly and professional. I arrived earlier than the rest of my party and sat at the bar for a hearty glass of Brunello di Montalcino while waiting. The bartender was very friendly and was kind enough to engage me in conversation for the fifteen minutes I was sitting on my own.

After my drink, everyone arrived and we were escorted upstairs to the main dining room. The decor is understated, but elegant and the tables are well spaced so you do not feel like you are having dinner with the table next to you, which always makes for a more pleasant NYC dining experience. When our waitress arrived she was clearly attentive, knowledgeable about the menu and able to offer up a number of suggestions to us based on what we each described our likes and dislikes were. As far as service is concerned, from the host at the front door to the bartender to the runners and up to the wait staff I can safely say there were no complaints from my table.

As far as the menu is concerned, there is a defining focus on seafood at Ristorante Morini. Whether you get your fix from the Crudo, the Sea Urchin Gramigna pasta, Branzino or any of the other offerings there is a definite need to test your palate with the chef’s seafood creations. The big-eye tuna and calamari appetizers were delicious. I highly recommend the tuna which is garnished with blood orange and fennel, and simply spectacular. Most of us ordered pastas for entrees and those did not disappoint either. I went with a personal favorite: Ferratini alla Carbonara. It was just the right portion size and was not overwhelmingly rich like carbonaras can be at times.The bolognese was a huge hit at the table as well. And even after all that food we were still ready to test out a couple of the dessert offerings. The semifreddo was light and took care of the chocolate fix. The pear tart was like a delicate apple tarte tatin and a good choice for those who prefer fruit-based desserts. As a final touch, you will receive a small plate of bite-sized treats with your bill of which I highly recommend indulging in the house-made caramels that very literally will melt in your mouth.

Ristorante Morini should be a neighborhood winner and attract not only local Upper East Siders, but also those who want to explore fine dining options throughout New York City. The restaurant is accessible, welcoming, pristine and serves well-prepared and distinct Italian dishes. So if you have an occasion or are just in the neighborhood and are in the mood to splurge I would definitely check out Ristorante Morini before it becomes a lot more difficult to snag a table.

Ristorante Morini, 1167 Madison Avenue, NY, NY, 10028. Phone: (212) 249-0444. 

When To Book: Ristorante Morini accepts reservations on OpenTable. It is easier to snag a table during the week and if you plan on dining here during a peak weekend time I suggest making a reservation two-to-three weeks in advance.

Uptown and Downtown Italian with Spigolo and L’Artusi

Sorry for being “off the grid” there for a couple of weeks. Between travel and my day job, not much time to get to some good new places. I have, however, been to two Italian spots recently that are worth telling you all about. For those of you uptown, Spigolo might be for you and then for the downtown crowd L’Artusi should be a name that rings a bell. Two completely different restaurants and atmosphere, but while I am on the Italian theme it makes sense to take note of both at the same time.

Spigolo first. I recently went there for a small birthday dinner and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of food. I have lived uptown for ~12 years now and when Spigolo opened in 2005 I remember there being a decent amount of hype and it being very difficult to get a table. I never got myself there, but finally decided to take the dive as it is one of the few “known” Upper East Side restaurants that I have not yet hit. I went there for a birthday, but I would only suggest that if you are looking for an intimate experience. Spigolo is probably better served for couples looking for a quiet meal or a nice spot to take someone on a date. It’s a small dining room with a rustic feel and one of those places that will warm you right up on a cold winter night (there will be plenty of those coming up soon). I was impressed by quality and presentation of each dish, and would put the restaurant in the category of a small gem nestled in the chaos that is Second Avenue on the Upper East Side. Anyone who has walked up Second Avenue in the 80s and 90s recently would feel sorry for the businesses that have been disrupted for years by what seems to be never-ending subway construction. Spigolo doesn’t appear to have missed a beat.

For starters, the regular and eggplant meatballs are a must. I did not eat any of the regular meatballs but judging by how quickly that plate went from full to empty leads me to believe they were pretty darn good. I enjoyed the eggplant meatballs, which were topped with a sweet tomato sauce that was very clearly hand crafted and quite tasty. Definitely try some pastas. There was a special Carbonara on the menu the evening I was there and if I were in charge of creating Spigolo’s menu I would put this on permanently. The Garganelli with Sweet Fennel Sausage Ragu was a richer dish and akin to a hearty Bolognese. For those trying to avoid carb overload there are some other meat and fish options to choose from. I tried the Chicken Scarpariello which was served with sausage, cherry tomatoes and a creamy polenta. The chicken was juicy and tender with the accompaniments fitting in just right. If you were tempted to try the sides the baby brussels sprouts with pecans are the way to go. In terms of the meal’s finale, look no further than the Sticky Toffee Bread Pudding. It’s definitely sweet, sticky and overly indulgent but worth sharing with the table and having a taste, or two. … or maybe even three.

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Moving from the Upper East Side to the West Village where you’ll find another Italian gem in L’Artusi. I’ve been to L’Artusi twice now and  enjoy it in part because it’s one of those places that is good for almost anything. Dinner with friends, a nice date, a place to go for a business-related meal, celebrations, you name it. The restaurant is casual but elegant and the design of the dining room is very well done. At first glance, the menu may look simple and maybe even somewhat limiting, but start ordering and you’ll soon realize it’s fine just the way it is. Unless you are hoarder of pasta, I would highly suggest ordering everything to share for the table. That way you cover more ground with the menu and everyone gets to try a variety of dishes. A strategic way to go about tackling the menu is to pick your targets from each section: Crudo, Verdura, Pasta, Pesce and Carne.

I skip the Crudo because raw fish isn’t my “thing,” but others in my party enjoyed the Hamachi Tartare and Dayboat Scallops. Verdura is more my speed and the Market Salad gets my stamp of approval. It’s light and fresh, topped with walnuts, feta and a yogurt dressing. The big hit at the table, however, were the Roasted Mushrooms with pancetta, fried egg and Ricotta Salata. Everyone liked them so much we had to order another. We also ordered L’Artusi’s special appetizer that evening which was a house made ricotta cheese served with toasts and preserves. It literally melts in your mouth and if it happens to be on the menu when you dine there I would recommend giving it a try. The Pasta section comes next and the relieving thing about  L’Artusi is that there is some sense of portion control, so even if you were to eat one plate for yourself there would (or at least should be) some room left in your stomach to try other dishes that come to the table.  I truly do not think you can go wrong here, but here are my two cents. The Bucatini, Orecchiette and Spagetti were my three favorites, in that order (and take note. … we had a lot of food on that table). The Bucatini is prepared like an Amatriciana with tomato, pancetta and pecorino. The Orecchiette fits into my motto that pretty much anything tastes better when topped with a good sweet sausage as this dish is prepared with salumi, sausage and pecorino in a light sauce. Very flavorful. Finally, the Spaghetti. This is probably the simplest of the pasta selections, but in this case simple is quite good. The dish is served with a sauce of garlic, parmesan and chilis so that even with the simplest of preparations the pasta has a little kick to it. Pesce was next and our server recommended the Striped Bass and Roasted Cod. I chose the bass which was a light follow-up to the bowls of pasta previously consumed and served with tomato, cannellini beans and kale. I skipped Carne, but two of my colleagues ordered the Pork Chop and Hangar Steak. Judging by the little left on their plate by the end of the course I would venture to say they enjoyed it. Even after all of this some of us still had an inch of room left for dessert. For a seasonal treat, I recommend the Pumpkin Tiramisu. The other two we ordered were good, but a serious second and third place to the pumpkin. The Hazelnut Chocolate Torta serves the chocolate lover well and the Olive Oil Cake is best for those looking to try something new and different. I will say I was initially drawn away from the Olive Oil Cake, but after trying it I would say it’s worth a taste.

There you have it. Two short reviews on Italian restaurants located at opposite ends of Manhattan. There are hundreds of choices when it comes to this cuisine and I won’t even pretend that these are No.1 and No.2, but they are each solid meals and should give you a little direction if you are ever on the Upper East Side or down in the West Village and start to have that craving for a good pasta with good atmosphere on the side.

Spigolo, 1561 Second Avenue, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 744-1100

When To Book: Spigolo accepts reservations on OpenTable. If you are planning to dine with them on a Friday or Saturday night I would suggest thinking a couple weeks in advance to get a preferred seating time. It’s easier with tables of two since the restaurant is so small. 

L’Artusi, 228 W. 10th Street, NY, NY, 10014. Phone: (212) 255-5757

When To Book:  L’Artusi accepts reservations on OpenTable. It can be difficult to get a weekend table at L’Artusi so booking three-to-four weeks in advance for a Saturday or Sunday reservation would be advised. The middle of the week and Sundays generally have more availability so you should have better luck checking a few days in advance. 

Twenty-Somethings Taking On The Upper East Side

If you’re a twenty-something living on the Upper (upper) East Side I can understand if you sometimes find it difficult to find a place to gather your friends at a “hip,” “trendy” and interesting restaurant for some Thursday night fun. I am not talking about the East 60s here. This is for those of you looking for a fun place in the 80s on up. The area is great, but be realistic. A majority of the restaurants – while some are very good – are tailored more for families, will leave a dent in the wallet and do not attract a crowd full of young people catching up with their girlfriends, out for a date or just going out for a fun meal with a mixed group. So I have three suggestions for you: Flex Mussels, Bocca East and Toloache. This is by no means the end-all-and-be-all of where a twenty-something can eat in the East 80s. They are just a few that have come up on my dining radar and may be worth your consideration the next time you scratch your head looking for a place for drinks and a good meal that does not include wings and beers from Brother Jimmy’s. And yes, it is pure coincidence that two of these restaurants happen to be on the same block.

Flex Mussels:

Flex Mussels in itself is a great concept. A beach-vibe restaurant with 23 distinct variety of mussels that come in large, deep pots to share amongst friends. If you enjoy mussels you will definitely find your niche here. Flex has everything from the classic preparation of mussels with white wine, herbs and garlic to more off-the-beaten track and creative innovations to the cuisine with menu items such as the Thai which consists of mussels in coconut curry brothm coriander, lemongrass, lime, ginger and garlic. I have dined at the West Village and Upper East Side locations a number of times so I have sampled quite a few of the selections and never find myself disappointed. The Parma and Bruschetta happen to be my favorites, but I have also enjoyed the Thai, San Daniele and Fra Diavolo (Note: If you order the Bruschetta you will be pleasantly surprised with the generous lobster portion). And what are mussels without fries? Try the regular or the truffle. … but really, just order the truffle fries. You know they will taste better.

If you have some people in your party who do not eat mussels, or do not even enjoy seafood, no need to fret. There are some options for them as well. They can order a nice piece of fish, lobster roll, chicken or take a sampling of some of the appetizers as well. It might not be the best spot for you non-mussel lovers, but it is a lively and fun place so if you can find something on the menu you would enjoy I suggest tagging along with the group.  For dessert, the donut collection with a variety of dipping sauces is a must. Might as well skip over whatever else is on the menu because this is clearly the winner here if you like fried dough. I have also ventured off the road most traveled and tried the Deep Fried Whoopie Pie, which was quite tasty as well.

Now, I said this place was fun, so on to a little flavor of ambiance. I won’t lie to you. When you walk in on E. 82nd street, the entry way with counter top and bar seating is quite tight. You fight your way through the narrow entrance to the hostess stand among groups of people enjoying a drink or just taking their meal at the counter. I have never done Flex that way, but it actually looks pretty fun to kick back, be casual and order a pot of mussels at the bar. The crowd is mixed, but I do not think I have ever seen so many young people at an Upper East Side restaurant on a Thursday night. Maybe is was just the night I was there, but it was really a fun scene. Young women dolled up in their heels and outfits ready to take on the town and the young business-looking type men coming straight from the office in their suits (without the tie and with a couple more buttons unbuttoned on their shirts than is “work appropriate”). The place is always crowded and definitely an opportunity to do some good people watching. The decor sets you on the beach with brightly colored walls with ocean-set art work while the black-topped tables and metal chairs make me feel like i am at a real (somewhat upscale) seafood shack.

The service is decent, but can be spotty. The last time I was there our waitress forgot to give us silverware, came back to the table twice to confirm our meal and there was an approximate 25-minute pause between when we finished our appetizers to the arrival of the main course. Iffy service aside. … I will still go back. So the next time you have the urge for a Prince Edward Island treat gather the troops and make a pit stop the Flex Mussels. I do not think you will leave hungry or disappointed.

Flex Mussels, 174 E. 82nd Street, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 717-7772.

When To Book: Flex Mussels takes reservations on OpenTable. It can be tricky sometimes to know how far in advance to book. If you know a week in advance you are going to want to stop in on a Thursday night or the weekend then you should probably book ahead. There are times, however, you can get lucky on a Thursday or Friday afternoon and find yourself a table at a decent time. You can always walk in and sit at the counter or bar as well. 

Toloache

One tequila, two tequila, three tequila. … floor! This Mexican taqueria situated just a few doors down from Flex Mussels on East 82nd street is another fun one for us younger folk. If you have the urge for a couple margaritas, a bowl of guac with tortilla chips and some tacos then drop by Toloache. Do not worry about the cocktail list – they have it covered. When it comes to the food I think it’s best shared among girlfriends since the taco portions would leave a grown man hungry and wanting more.

These are not your typical over-stuffed, extra large soft tortilla tacos. These are daintier and can fit in the palm of your hand. And if you are with your boyfriend or a group of young dudes, tell them to look at the side of the menu entitled, “Platos Fuertes.” Those dishes are probably more their speed. But then again. … this is a taco place. So just over-order and get a bunch of tacos, quesadillas and more to share.

The restaurant does a pretty good job of highlighting all of its signature dishes. I do not think you can go all that wrong by following those guidelines. I ordered one of the signature quesadillas with truffle, corn and manchego cheese that was delicious. It was not too big nor too rich, but it did leave me wanting more. Definitely start with some guacamole. It’s not the best in New York City (there’s quite a bit of competition), but nevertheless pretty good and will hold you over while sipping on margaritas waiting to order.

The restaurant is larger than you would think when walking in the door. There are a couple rooms in the back and the tables are spread out enough that you do not feel like you are bumping shoulders with your neighbor. The dining room was a little dark, but I guess the mood was set and the lights were not dimmed to a point where I wanted to fall asleep or anything. Again, being on the Upper East Side (and in Manhattan for that matter) the crowd was naturally mixed, but as I surveyed the tables around me there were a number of parties who looked to be in my same age range, whether they were on an awkward-looking first date or a group of girlfriends looking to catch up on each other’s week. Good”margs,” good food and good people. Another neighborhood solid in my book.

Toloache, 166 E. 82nd Street, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 861-4505.

When To Book: Toloache  takes reservations on OpenTable. You can usually get a table the day of your planned reservation or try to walk in. 

Bocca East

This one is for you Italian lovers. The newer comer to the Upper East Side is an off shoot of one of my favorites from the very very West Side on 55th and 9th. When Bocca East opened on 78th and Second Avenue (it’s basically in the East 80s for those following this post and trying to fault me on a technicality) I was very excited to see how it would compare to the original Bocca Di Bacco. It did not disappoint. In some ways I even find this location more enjoyable. It is definitely more centrally located. This wine bar and trattoria is good for anything from al fresco dining to enjoying a nice glass of wine or devouring a big a bowl of pasta.

One of the more unique things to note about Bocca East (and it’s sister restaurant) is the wine system. The restaurant has a very complex wine storage system that essentially allows them to serve a very wide variety of vino on “tap.”  In addition there is a fairly comprehensive selection of Italian wines, beers and cocktails to choose from. The dining room is rustic with wood floors, tables and chairs. The glass windows allow you to peer outside from your table and not feel closed in by the restaurant walls. You can always exercise the option in warmer months to take a table outside too. The dining room in the summer is a tad over air-conditioned, so if you are able to get outdoor seating I suggest doing just that. Plus, outdoor dining is usually more enjoyable anyway.

The menu is well rounded and consists of enough options for whatever Italian dish for which you might be in the mood. I would recommend sharing a number of appetizers. The Crostini Misti, Baby Artichoke Salad and Buffalo Mozzarella are all worth trying. Our waiter also suggested the Seared Yellow Fin Tuna and Grilled Shrimp, but we already had too much on the table. I will save those for next time! I have always been biased toward the meat dishes when dining at Bocca di Bacco on the West Side, so I decided to go with pasta on this visit and realized I had been missing out. The Bucatini all’Amatriciana (This happens to be one of my top three favorite pastas. … kudos to Bocca for somehow predicting that and putting it on the menu) was light, flavorful and cooked al dente just as it should be. It was quite a generous portion but there was nothing left when I was done with that plate. Others in my group ordered the scallops and skirt steak, and both were pleased with their meals.

The service was attentive an friendly enough. My one qualm was with the Buffalo Mozzarella appetizer when the waiter tried to convince me that bresaola was of the pork variety and not beef (Note: I am not a beef eater). When the dish arrived it was pretty clear there was cured beef on the plate in front of me. I get my Italian cured meats confused from time-to-time as well, but if the restaurant wants to be authentic its servers should be able to discern the difference! The Buffalo Mozzarella was creamy and delicious so it did not bother me too much. I ate and moved on.

Bocca East is a great for a date, vino with the girls or even a meal with the family. Again, it is very pleasant to sit at one of the outdoor tables so make your visit quick before the late Fall and Winter months force your meal indoors.

Bocca East, 1496 Second Avenue, NY, NY 10075. Phone: (212) 249-1010/

When To Book: Bocca East takes reservations on OpenTable. If you plan on dining at Bocca East earlier in the week you can likely book the day of or one day in advance. For Thursday, Friday or Saturday reservations I would suggest booking a week in advance or very early in the week. The prime-time tables can book up. 

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