An interlocking tile dome, up-lit and hung with pendant lights, is a stunning backdrop for Morello Bistro’s satisfying Northern Italian cuisine.
Some sites simply beg for restaurants. Take Grand Central Terminal, for instance, where a vast, twinkling ceiling and herringboned Guastavino vaults make an irresistible lure for customers who, owing to the station’s hub location, already have their wallets open.
So it is with Morello Bistro, poised siren-like on Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich, Connecticut, ready to snag spending shoppers with its own gorgeous Catalan vaults. For the architecturally un-savvy, Rafael Guastavino’s interlocking tile system lends the arched grandeur to the ceilings at Ellis Island, The American Museum of Natural History, Grant’s Tomb, and Carnegie Hall. At Morello Bistro, the Guastavino vaults remain from the building’s origins as a bank. Currently up-lit for drama, the feature makes a stunning backdrop for Morello’s satisfying (and, sometimes, delicious) Northern Italian food.
Morello jumps on the antipasti trend with a mix of small plates, salads, and soups, like seductive and homey stracciatella (Italian chicken egg-drop soup), and standards like beef carpaccio and grilled octopus. Scanning the bunch, we leapt at fried artichokes, hoping for the Roman treat, carciofi alla Judea, in which baby artichokes are simply deep-fried in olive oil and then generously showered with salt. (Crunchy, salty, and oily, the dish is as addictive as opium.) Unfortunately, Morello’s chef didn’t share our notions—a bunch of very adult, water-logged and batter-fried artichoke sections arrived.
A well-executed duck breast special.
Antipasti didn’t improve on a second visit, when an otherwise delicious grilled cotechino sausage (over buttery, perfectly cooked, and yummy lentils) was served with an insufficiently re-warmed poached egg. Though I don’t fault the kitchen for pre-poaching its eggs—it’s a common practice, and not perceptible if the egg is thoroughly re-heated—this cold, raw egg yolk was a heartbreak in an almost great dish. Meanwhile, my partner’s standard deep-fried calamari tasted merely, well, standard (and a bit chewy).
Inauspicious, at best…yet the divine pastas at Morello instantly erased our bitter memories. A melting, aromatic gnocchi, rolled in a pan with brown butter and served with mildly piggy speck and pleasantly salty Moliterno cheese, stopped conversation at the table as we parried forks to snag each creamy pillow. (FYI: a couple of shared appetizers of pasta are a good substitute for lackluster antipasti; split orders are not penalized on the bill.) Also good was a soulful, lavishly rich garganelli alla Bolognese, whose flavors spoke of the slow passage of time, root vegetables, and pork.
Refreshing, too, is that Morello’s story doesn’t end with pastas. We found a special of perfectly rendered duck breast, whose crisp, well-seasoned skin yielded an ideal â…› inch of melt-in-the-mouth fat—before, in turn, revealing a uniformly pink, beefsteak-like magret. Its accompaniment of well-seasoned baby turnips added a comforting complement to the juicy meat, though—to pick—the dish’s broccoli rabe contorno was puckeringly salted. A side of creamy polenta was better, and so buttery that you could have spread it on toast. Meanwhile, a lovely grilled whole branzino arrived, as do many of Morello’s mains, in a cast-iron Staub pan. The fish’s salty, crisp skin contrasted well with creamy flesh and partnering borlotti beans, while the whole was given some sparkle with melted fennel stalks and salty olives.
The Catalan vaults at Morello are showstoppers.
Only a main of veal Milanese flew seriously wide of the mark. Apparently sans salt or a squeeze of lemon, this plate-sized, breaded and fried disc landed totally flat. The dish was not helped by a generous side of dressed arugula, about which our waiter should have warned us: we’d started our meal with a large dish of a nearly identical salad.
Yet along with a glorious setting, Morello offers a seductive wine list that features many Italian bottles in the cheap-and-cheerful under-$40 range. Those feeling more abstemious will be pleased by a gently priced by-the-glass list—we especially liked our Saladini Pilastri Pecorino at an easy seven bucks.
Morello’s desserts can shoot past rich into overwhelming, like an ill-conceived and oily pile of bomboloni that spurted geysers of crème anglaise when pierced. A fudgy chocolate torte was a one-note smile-blackener, though a tiramisu was tasty, if a little rushed. The cake was strangely unsoaked: its layers perched on top of the dairy, rather than having been given time to unite in a fluffy cloud of mascarpone and coffee. Best was a sweet (and untangy) cheesecake given not-enough oomph from lemon sauce: gourmets might skip dessert entirely and opt for more dependable glasses of sweet wine.
Is Morello worth a visit? Yes, though with a few serious caveats. Consider antipasti and desserts flyover states, though good bowls of pasta will heal all wounds. Of course Rafael Guastavino’s fabulous ceiling helps (and a few gently priced glasses of wine don’t hurt, either).
Morello Bistro â˜…â˜…
253 Greenwich Ave, Greenwich, CT
Hours: lunch Mon to Fri 12 pm–2:30 pm; dinner Mon to Wed 5 pm–9:30 pm, Thurs to Sat 5 pm–10 pm; brunch Sat 12 pm–3 pm, Sun 11 am–3 pm. Appetizers: $7–$18; entrées: $15–$35; desserts: $8–$10.
â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…—Outstanding â˜…â˜…â˜…—Very Good
Photography by Cathy Pinsky