Though certain meals call for pure adventure, most of us crave a dining-out experience that blends a hint of the familiar with what’s new. Maybe the restaurant’s interior reminds us of a friend’s comfortably chic dining room; and the menu reflects bold flavors, a twist on a favorite cuisine or a chef’s creation we’ve never tried. At Morello Bistro, the bi-level dining room with its tiled dome ceiling has set the scene for years of dinners, but now a new executive chef is putting his distinctive stamp on the place, with a fresh menu of Italian comfort foods. Chef Kevin Garcia, who worked at Mario Batali’s Del Posto and other New York hotspots, brings his personal recipes while retaining longtime popular dishes. Owned by MARC—which counts New York’s A Voce and two Michelin-starred London restaurants in its portfolio—Morello is more casual than its culinary cousins, catering to the we-eat-out-for-all-reasons-and-seasons Greenwich crowd.
Some regulars here like to frequent the lounge-like bar up front, sipping the signature Blueberry Smash, Goose Island lagers or wine by the glass-and-a-half, while others opt for a quieter table in the elegant upstairs space. At a recent Friday night dinner, we secured a corner spot in the main-level dining room, a fun place for people watching; the scene included couples young and old, a small bar crowd, and a group of stylish thirtysomething women celebrating a special occasion.
This updated menu is versatile, with many options for sharing. The congenial manager Jimmy Branigan (who keeps service running smoothly and whom you may recognize from a past stint at Terra) encouraged us to try a few “Per la Tavola” items before our antipasti. Prosciutto and Parmesan fritters sprinkled with fontina cheese and parsley are some gooey, cheesy goodness, a snack concocted by Chef Garcia. These fritters are filling yet addictive, obliging big appetites. A lighter starter that we also enjoyed was the popcorn-like Cauliflower Fritti, which taste just barely fried and come with a lemon aioli. For cheese aficionados and fans of salumi, there’s a list of imported choices; meats are sliced to order.
At some restaurants, I could live on antipasti and salads, and this is one of them. The Roasted Asparagus and Egg was an indulgence and a contrast in textures, with the gentle crunch of the white asparagus and the tender, soft-cooked egg, all topped with a black-truffle vinaigrette and tiny pieces of bacon. The crudo del giorno was a lovely tuna with lemon, coarse salt and a slight kick from red pepper. (My husband is a tough critic when it comes to fish, as he has often eaten it minutes after it’s been caught; this met his approval.)
I’m the more discerning one when it comes to salads, yet this Escarole Salad is a wintry mix that I’d definitely order again. Bright greens are tossed with fresh mint, red onions and crunchy hazelnuts as well as shavings of a top-quality Pecorino Romano, dressed in a sherry-hazelnut vinaigrette. In a world of been-there-done-that salads, it’s like an edible eye opener. A Wild Baby Arugula salad with apples, almonds and creamy goat cheese gets a sweet touch from a grape-juniper vinaigrette that balances the bitter greens.
Of course, at an Italian restaurant, the pasta is expected to shine. My favorite was the Pappardelle ai Funghi: tender strips of homemade pasta and a slightly creamy sauce that really emphasized the flavors of the different mushrooms. The Garganelli Bolognese, a house special, was a very good version of the classic; a meaty sauce that’s hearty but not heavy, topped with a dollop of herbed ricotta. The only weak point was the lobster risotto (risotto of the day), which melded Italian rice with finely chopped lobster in a sauce that was simply much too salty.
The evening’s standout entrée was one Chef Garcia recently introduced, the Rack of Lamb. Yes, Chef Garcia, you had us at polenta (amazingly creamy), but then bring on the flash-fried artichokes, the tender, perfectly cooked meat and the finishing touch of candied fruits soaked in mustard oil, and this is one special dish. We also liked the fish Livornese, a tender and flaky red snapper in a sweet tomato sauce with olives, capers and a lovely sautéed spinach.
If you’ve overindulged in the earlier courses, opt for one of the housemade sorbets or gelatos for dessert. Those with a sweet tooth that won’t quit should look to the bomboloni, mini donuts filled with vanilla cream and paired with a homemade chocolate dipping sauce. It’s one of many variations on this classic Tuscan dessert that’s dished out here, meaning future opportunities for the flavor-obsessed. Morello may be a comfortable local mainstay, but it still leaves room for that subtle element of surprise.
253 Greenwich Avenue
LUNCH: Mon.–Fri., 12 p.m.–2:30 p.m.
DINNER: Mon.–Thurs., 5 p.m.–9:30 p.m., Fri.–Sat., 5 p.m.–10:30 p.m.
BRUNCH: Sat., 12 p.m.–3 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.