He may have risen to fame in the dining utopia that is New York City, but the Midwesterner in Michael White — the restaurateur behind the award-winning Altamarea Group — is still over the moon about being able to share his culinary vision with epicurious Washingtonians.
“I wanted to be in my nation’s capital,” White said of the decision to launch a third Osteria Morini along the sprawling riverfront complex taking root in the shadow of Nationals Park. “The investment going on here is beautiful.”
Per staff, the new restaurant at 301 Water St. SE opened for friends and family this past weekend, followed by an industry-and-VIP-only soiree on Monday. It will open to the general public for dinner starting Tuesday.
According to White, the Northern-Italian-themed Osteria Morini — which he also exported to New Jersey in 2012 — is the ideal way to carve out a name for himself.
“This is the restaurant in my portfolio that makes the most sense in Washington, D.C. And it makes the most sense wherever we go outside of the city because it’s just [a] very convivial, soulful food of Italy that’s not a hard sell,” he said.
White believes his collection of house-made pastas (think: spaghetti with clams, lasagna Bolognese, wild mushroom rigatoni and caramelized onion risotto) will appeal to those who grew up visiting classic red sauce joints, even if the modern interpretations sport a little twist.
“It’s all about the taste memory,” he said of the regional flavors that have crossed his well-traveled palate. “We’re not inventing anything new really, ... [it’s] just different combinations.”
The original Morini in New York City’s SoHo pays tribute to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy — the place where a visiting White first fell in love with the “wholesome, honest” cuisine of Italy’s breadbasket.
“It’s comfort food,” he said.
As such, expect to find a smattering of Morini’s featured battilardo (cured meats that run the gamut from prosciutto di parma to finocchiona, fennel salami and bresaola, air-dried beef) escorted by the signature tigelle (griddle cakes). Given the turning of the seasons, White is also curious to see how the locals receive crowd favorites — such as the veal Petroniana, a cutlet topped with prosciutto and melted Parmesan, and accompanied by truffled cream sauce, or the mixed grill, featuring everything from pork sausage to sirloin steaks and other braised meats.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” he said of the new audience. “I know that we’re going to be cooking the same kind of food that we do in New York. But to watch how people gravitate towards it, that’s always fun to see.”
And while the new Morini shares the same meat program with its predecessors (renowned wholesaler Pat LaFrieda supplies White with the 40-day dry-aged steaks served across his empire), D.C. boasts one major departure: a flywheel grill.
“They’re illegal in New York. So all our chefs up there are so jealous,” a Morini spokeswoman said of the sibling rivalry the fiery new kitchen amenity has sparked. White said staff is looking forward to searing various proteins over a combination of lump charcoal and seasoned oak.
As executive chef, Matt Adler gets first crack at the heavy-duty fire pit. A veteran of the Altamarea Group, Adler relocated to Alexandria, Va., to take command of the new D.C. outpost. (His wife, Kim, was recently brought on as a pastry chef by the Tryst-led group of local restaurants.)
Pastry chef Alexander Levin, opening director of operations Frank Botta (staying on until February), assistant general manager Erich Stumpe (who will move up when Botta leaves) and beverage director Jochem Zijp will round out Morini’s D.C. contingent.
And it sounds like the group’s got plenty of work ahead of it. Adler said dinner-only service will continue for two weeks; regular lunch service is expected to start Monday, Dec. 2.
White is also planning on adding his pizzeria concept, Nicoletta, to D.C. come summer. A restaurant spokeswoman said a gelateria is also under consideration.
Osteria Morini: 301 Water St. SE; osteriamorini.com, 202-484-0660