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Scallops with lentils, lardo and salsa verde

Rolling on the River

by David Hagedorn | Photography by Greg Powers | DC magazine | March 7, 2014

Chef Michael White may not be a known entity in DC, but in New York his name has been attached to a string of acclaimed Italian restaurants and a galaxy of Michelin stars. In 2010, White’s Altamarea Group opened the flagship Osteria Morini in SoHo as an ode to the flavor-rich cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s agricultural hub. The name refers to Gianluigi Morini, the owner of San Domenico, a restaurant near Bologna where White trained and worked for seven years. DC’s outpost opened in November.

If you haven’t been to the Navy Yard in a while, you’re in for a shock and a treat. Under our noses, a once dormant area in the shadow of Nationals Park has transformed into a nexus of new condos, restaurants and brewpubs, with a Whole Foods due to open. Osteria Morini occupies space that overlooks Yards Park and the Anacostia River, meaning that guests in the 124-seat dining room and the 100-seat patio enjoy a splendid view of greenery and waterworks through the restaurant’s glass exterior.

The interior includes frosted glass pendant lamps and columns wrapped elegantly by acid-treated glass panels. Each panel is lit from behind to accent its golden hue. Floor-to-ceiling shelves behind the bar feature the kind of multicolored enamel casserole dishware you’d find in an Italian nonna’s kitchen, as do dinner plates and pasta bowls bordered with painted floral motifs.

When in Emilia-Romagna, do as the Romagnoli do: Prime your palate with fizzy, plum-red Lambrusco while you review the menu. Chef Matt Adler heads the kitchen here. He has a sure hand and a talent for extracting maximum flavor from food by cooking it in a straightforward manner rather than distracting from it with unnecessary additions. The menu’s structure reflects a trattoria setting: cured meats, cheeses, antipasti, salads, pastas, main courses, grilled meats and side dishes. Start with salumi, making sure to include the whipped mortadella with pistachios and the duck-liver mousse touched with passito wine.

Crostini are, more precisely, spreads. They’re formed into large mouse-shaped quenelles and served on the side. The beef crudo is essentially steak tartare, and a good one at that. The meat is bright, fresh and chopped by hand instead of annihilated in a food processor. The Parmigiano gelato—pureed milk and Parmesan cheese whipped over ice into a silken emulsification—could be a tasty condiment for just about any dish.

A salad of red endive, pomegranate seeds, Gorgonzola and hazelnuts is perfectly dressed and so large it lasts through dinner. A crudo of fluke, ruby-red grapefruit supremes, pine nuts and zesty slivers of red pepper is refreshing, though seems out of place on a list with polpettine of prosciutto and mortadella, crispy pig head terrine and tortellini in brodo.

This brings me to the pastas—stars at Osteria Morini. All are housemade and cooked as they should be, with a little bite left to them. Bucatini with crab and basil becomes ethereal with the addition of sea urchin, and cappelletti—truffled ricotta, bathed in butter and topped with strips of prosciutto—is habit-forming. Any Emilia-Romagna menu must include terrific Bolognese ragù, slow-cooked with beef, veal and pork. Here you have two options: with tagliatelle or lasagna verde. The latter dish is decadent and seductive, each bite a lilting waltz of cheese, béchamel, tomato and meat.

Main courses are blissfully simple, segueing between pasta and dessert. Scallops, bass, shrimp and clams—all cooked just right—rest in a light broth seasoned with basil. Branzino with charred lemon and fennel (as a puree and in a salad), and swordfish with broccoli rabe and crispy potatoes taste of good olive oil and fresh rosemary, as do the grilled meats turned out from a wood-burning grill. Meat-lovers will delight in a mixed grill of lamb chop, skirt steak, veal rib chop, sausage and pancetta. Also, don’t overlook the dry-aged rib-eye with bone-marrow sugo.

Desserts are right up there with the pastas in the kudos category. Pastry Chef Alex Levin’s elegant and masterful desserts consist of multiple components, each as refined as the next and in no way arbitrary or superfluous. Pistachio cake comes with supremes of fresh citrus (grapefruit, Cara Cara, satsuma and blood oranges), medjool dates and creme fraiche sorbetto, as well as tiny meringue kisses. Levin has re-elevated tiramisu to its august status via a layered pie of ladyfingers, mascarpone mousse and coffee crema, the wedge topped with precisely piped dots of cream. The real stunner, though, is a lemon-meringue torta of buttery, delicate pastry crust, exquisitely balanced lemon curd, swirled meringue torched to golden brown and vanilla gelato—a finish as exquisite as the culinary journey here.

Dolce Drinks
Adios, Cava! Ciao, prosecco! Lambrusco is the new non-Champagne sparkling aperitif. Osteria Morini’s Beverage Manager Jochem Zijp put together a nice collection—in bottles and by the glass—of this sweet but perky red sparkler that’s quintessentially Romagnolo. Take the flight of three for $15, which covers three grape varietals: Donelli, Salamino and Grasparossa.

Brunch Brigade
Osteria Morini rolls out its brunch menu in April. In addition to pastas and antipasti, look for dishes such as poached eggs and cotechino on tigelle (similar to English muffins) and hollandaise sauce over guanciale and potato hash. Alex Levin’s cinnamon-raisin danish, spiced semolina muffins and rosemary Parmesan scones should seal the deal if the views haven’t.

Osteria Morini
301 Water St. SE, 202.484.0660

Appetizers, $10-$15; pastas, $17-$21;
entrees, $26-$45; desserts, $9-$12

Mon.-Thu., 11:30am-10pm; Fri., 11:30am-11pm; Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 5-9pm