Tom Sietsema: Ostera Morini on the Capitol Riverfront

Aside from the trapeze school, the most fly reason to explore the emerging Capitol Riverfront in Southeast Washington right now is an Italian restaurant whipped up by a New York chef.

Even riding shotgun with UberX, you may get lost on your first attempt to reach Osteria Morini, which served its first crostini and meatballs in November in a yet-to-be-zoned area whose streets don’t appear on all navigation systems. The reward for your diligence is a window-wrapped room with a view (of the Yards Park and the Anacostia River) and food inspired by Michael White of the Altamarea Group, a restaurant collection that includes the original Osteria Morini, opened in New York in 2010, and the loftier Marea on Central Park South.

Think pasta made from scratch, meat warmed over a wood-fired grill and desserts that are anything but ordinary. And this in a space made merry with a stretch of a bar, columns wrapped in amber glass and a visible kitchen manned by chef Matt Adler, who comes to Washington from the Morini in SoHo.

The offshoot retains a bad habit from its November debut: making its servers deliver an annoying screed about how to order. The narrative is so ingrained in the otherwise engaging staff that if anyone interrupts the script, some of them start over. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” one of the waiters launched into his spiel one night, which was news to the four guys at the table, none in drag.

Morini doesn’t taste like a chain, but sometimes it acts like one. Get past the introduction, however, and the place can easily grow on you. My affection is kindled by a very good cocktail — allow me to suggest Fiori D’Arancio, based on bourbon and Madeira — and antipasti that mix the traditional with the trendy. Tender meatballs draped in tomato sauce are no match for the elite model served at Casa Luca downtown. Testa — a terrine of fried pig head, presented as a crisp bar seasoned with rosemary and lemon zest — is a delicious way to try parts of an animal that used to go to waste but now enjoy cachet among food warriors.

Osteria Morini specializes in the food of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy, which accounts for the wealth of pork products, fresh-made pastas and Parmigiano-Reggiano on the menu. (The restaurant’s name salutes White’s mentor in Italy, chef Gianluigi Morini, the founder of San Dominico in Imola.)

Any diner who considers winter a challenge to enjoying a diverting salad needs to order peppery arugula mixed with thin slices of pear, lashings of Parmesan and crisp flakes of dried speck in the role of bacon bits. Salads make better starting points than the crostini, made with pressed baguette slices and offered with a choice of five dips — pureed squash with sage, minced beet with ricotta salata — none of which tastes better than its printed descriptions.

About those house-made pastas. Some, such as bucatini with sea urchin and crab, suggest you’re dining in a formal ristorante rather than a casual osteria. Others, including gramigna (picture musical notes) with crumbled pork sausage, cream and tomato, are comforts that get passed around the table until nothing but the white of the bowl remains. Spaghetti with shrimp and arugula pesto is seasoned for timid palates; the sauce could use more of an edge.

Morini’s wood-fired grill is the source of some of my happiest meals at the restaurant, which also counts a sibling in New Jersey. There are a monster pork chop, sliced just before serving and mounted on shaved Brussels sprouts, and even better lamb chops, a main course made colorful with silky fried peppers. Cornish hen, roasted on the stove, emerges juicy from the heat and leaves the kitchen with an escort of soft butter beans laced with prosciutto. Short ribs pick up an Italian accent from their braise in sangiovese followed by a garnish of gremolata. The very good beef is paired with whipped potatoes that smack as much of butter as tuber. No complaints here.

In contrast to such good company, seafood soup with scallops and fish is the guest who forgot to bring a good story to the table.

Lunch finds abundant light streaming through the windows and an abbreviated menu, a mere three entrees. The bulk of the options are panini and pastas. The former are part of a lunch promotion, a choice of a sandwich with either a salad or soup for $19. Go for the soup: marbles of mortadella-filled pasta floating in a Parmesan-enriched broth has a lovely Old World quality.

Bottles of wine are first introduced to diners, removed for the sommelier to inspect, then returned to the table for final approval. Beverage manager Jochem Zijp says that because there’s sometimes a fine line between “earthy and funky and different and good” and “earthy and funky and different and bad,” especially among his Italian wares, he prefers to check the bottles first for signs of flaws. On average, Zijp says, the system keeps between six to a dozen wines from marring guests’ meals every month.

This is not an Italian restaurant content to offer a slice of tiramisu and a scoop of gelato and call it a day. While pastry chef Alex Levin, formerly a pastry cook at Cafe Boulud in New York, whips up very good versions of both those crowd-pleasers, they compete for a diner’s attention with eight other attractions.

Levin’s budino stars a soft butterscotch pudding, its sweetness foiled with fleur de sel in every spoonful, while his lemon tart, topped with Italian meringue, radiates tang against a buttery, slightly sweet crust. “Riso” layered with vanilla rice pudding, passionfruit curd and crumbled almonds takes comfort food to a lofty level. A miniature pistachio cake is finished with lemony whipped cream. Most selections come with an ice cream or sorbet to complement the centerpiece, which is a nice way to promote the kitchen’s dozen or so house-churned efforts. That rice pudding, for instance, benefits from a sparkling mandarin-prosecco sorbet.

My numerous and ongoing tastes of the Capitol Riverfront have revealed rivals Arsenal to be a better place for drinking than for dining and Agua 301 to be Mexican by way of a tourist brochure.

Although Osteria Morini might face stiffer competition in the city’s northwest quadrant — home to the aforementioned Casa Luca, Alba Osteria and other Gianni-come-latelies — the Italian arrival between Nationals Park and the Navy Yard is setting a bar for others to match, and maybe even raise.

Next week: Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab downtown.

★★

(Good)
Osteria Morini

301 Water St. SE. 202-484-0660.osteriamorini.
com/washington-dc.

OPEN:
Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to
11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to
9 p.m. Sunday.

METRO:
Navy Yard.

PRICES:
Lunch appetizers $9 to $16, sandwiches and entrees $12 to $23; dinner appetizers $9 to $15, entrees $17 to $45.

SOUND CHECK:
73 decibels
/Must speak
with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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