With high-end restaurants like Thomas Henkelmann, Rebecca’s, Jean Louis, L’escale, and Polpo, the Greenwich food scene is hallmarked by special occasion dining. Though lush and lux, the cuisines are rough on wallets and waistlines.
At first blush, Morello’s on Greenwich Avenue seems to be part of that plush world. The setting, a landmark Beaux Arts bank building woven with spectacular arches and ceilings tiled in golden amber by the Catalan architect Rafel Guastavino, Jr, may be the most lavish, sexiest dining space in all of Connecticut. Moreover, the bistro is part of the exclusive restaurant portfolio belonging to international jet setter and billionaire Marlon Abela, a collection that includes Michelin star eateries in London, as well as a Voce in Manhattan and Bistro du Midi in Boston.
Despite these auspices, Morello’s new executive chef, Forrest Pasternack, has adjusted and expanded its Northern Italian cuisine to be simpler, more rustic, regional, and populist. “We want to be a neighborhood restaurant,” the CIA trained chef told CTBites at a recent tasting to introduce his new expanded menu. “Both the food and the prices need to be accessible. And the larger, ever changing menu will hopefully keep people coming back.”
His signature dish, garganelli Bolognese epitomizes the concept. It is rustic and regional. The garganelli -- a broad flat noodle popular in the Bologna district -- is freshly made on premises, as are all pastas on the menu. The dish begins with a searing of the veal, pork, and beef over high heat to achieve caramelization. Like the Italian peasant women who simmered their ragu all day to tenderize the tough service animal beef, Pasternack goes low and slow with his sauce. It is smoothed with a herbed ricotta and finished with high fat butter, rather than the traditional unpasteurized milk (“I can’t take a chance with that,” Pasternack confesses.) Only 8 ingredients make up the dish: simple and authentic, like the foods and people of Emilia-Romagna.
Chef Paternack dresses up the otherwise humble risotto with delicacies like chanterelles, white truffle salt and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The cheese marries Pauper and Prince: the nutty, comforting rice kissed by Forrest’s woody, noble mushrooms from America’s Pacific Northwest. He doesn’t use the arborio rice common to the American kitchen, but rather a carnaroli rice, which is the the grain most Italians use for their risotto, especially at home.
Pasternack’s offerings taste home-made --with room left for his riffs. For instance, the salmon is first cured in house with dark brown sugar and coarse sea salt, then cold smoked for only 45 minutes. He hand cuts the cured fish, serves it with lemon aioli, baby arugula, and shaved fennel, creating a Carpaccio redolent of sea, smoke, and sunny gardens. (I did find the salmon a bit too salty, but that is a quibble compared to what is otherwise a magical alchemy of flavors.) Though smoking fish originated in central Europe, Pasternak tells us its practice actually reached Northern Italy, making it part of the local cuisine.
We sampled another primi: oysters under a cloak of creamed leeks, chopped pancetta and herbed bread crumbs. On a summer’s day, I savor the clean slurp-icity of fresh oysters dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice, so I worried that the myriad toppings would compete with the beloved tang. Surprisingly, the amalgam worked. The oyster, meat and vegetable seemed almost hearty … and certainly autumnal.
The insalata was also inspired by the season: just ripened black mission figs, roasted, filled with gorgonzola, and surrounded by frisée, toasted walnuts and baby arugula. Was that a leaf that fell on my shoulder?
We enjoyed two secondi’s. The presentation of the first, Roasted Halibut, served as a sensory tour de force and true crowd pleaser. First, our waiter scissored open a sealed aluminum foil basket, releasing an aromatic swoosh of steam, brimming with the fragrances of fresh fish, local corn, carrots, squash, tomatoes and basil. You can hear the escape, feel the warmth, inhale the flavors, and see the puffy cloud -- a preview of what the palate was about to taste: succulent halibut moistened from the steaming and sweetened by the vegetables. A trip to a sun-splashed fishing village in Sicily.
The next entry traveled us north: beef short ribs, served over a pillow of what first looked to be mashed potatoes but turned out to be a smooth, creamy puree of parsnips and spiced squash, much lighter than the spuds, with far less carbs. The beef was hearty but not heavy, like the Barolo wine that would be the perfect pairing. After all, aren’t we now in Piedmont, at the foot of the Alps, hunkering down for an icy winter?
As befits any Marlon Abela restaurant, Morello’s wine program is discriminating and features some of Italy’s best varietals, including Tocai, Vernaccia, Vermentino, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, as well as a nice sampling of bottles from around the globe. The list is pricier than Pastgernack’s more affordable menu, but more than 20 wines can be ordered by the glass and 20 labels are under $50.
Morello’s soaring space and down-to-earth cuisine make this ravishing and romantic Italian bistro quite special. Seduction is always on the menu.
Morello’s Italian Bistro
253 Greenwich Ave Greenwich CT
203 881 3443
[Photography courtesy of Tom McGovern]