Morandi 211 Waverly Pl, 212-627-7575 Price range: $38-48 Rating: 3 L's
Restaurateur Keith McNally is an imposing figure on the restaurant scene, defining the neighborhoods he moves into with his own raffish blend of populism and elitism. Balthazar in Soho, Pastis in the Meatpacking District, Schiller’s in the LES, and, long ago, the Odeon in Tribeca. At each of these he perfected the faux-Franco brasserie with great space, solid food and perennially hip clientele. But with Morandi, he’s shifted tactics, opening a faux-Tuscan eatery in a neighborhood whose up-and-comingness passed long ago.
The space, with stone arches, distressed wood chandeliers, a rough-beamed ceiling and thatched bottles of Chianti lining the walls, is an EPCOT version of Tuscany, but it definitely cost some serious scratch to build. Except for the mismatched tables and chairs — isn’t that adorable? No, it’s an annoying affectation that cripples half the room with severely uncomfortable cane chairs.
The menu was predictable McNally; classic Italian you won’t see at a red-sauce joint (and a $78 porterhouse), with a few adventurous dishes for show. Our appetizers, however, were simple and excellent. Best was Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Bruschetta ($10), where the fresh satiny cheese, along with tomato and pesto, cloaked downy slices of rustic bread. Fried Artichokes ($10) were surprisingly sweet, zested with a squirt of lemon. Grilled Calamari ($12) with capers, olives and tomato was tender and sprightly, but missed the flavors a good scorching brings out of squid.
Main courses were less successful. I enjoyed my Sicilian Meatballs ($18), studded with pine nuts in a tomato-raisin sauce, but a friend thought the pine nuts ruined the texture. We both agreed that the sweet tomato sauce was a bit of genius, but too heavy and palate-deadening for a main course. There was no dissent on the Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage ($15); we both found it inedible. A bitter, gray slaw of broccoli rabe overwhelmed characterless ground meat and gluey pasta.
The dessert menu looked universally tasty, if heavy, so we went for a bowl of Lemon Sorbet ($9) with vodka and fizzy water, basically a wondrously tangy, slightly boozy adult Slurpee.
Morandi lacks a clear vision. Is it a neighborhood eatery or a destination? It’s prepped like a scene, but the low ceilings and jaunty layout make for poor people-watching. The food is uneven, though it often wows. In the end, it feels like a template for an upscale Italian chain. Citizens of, say, Boise would flip for Morandi. But in this city, we dig the authentic — and novice Italian waiters don’t count.