Creating a winning restaurant usually requires far more art than science, but the immediate success of Morandi, the Italian debut for Keith McNally, king of the pseudo-French eatery (Pastis, Balthazar), amounts to simple math: x (cram them in) times y (turn them over) equals z (money machine).
Another necessary variable: diners willing to heed the cattle call. The rush for a table or a spot at the bar has always been part of the McNally experience. And if you’re not in the mood, his restaurants can be insufferable. But if you are, the environment is transporting (even if the place he takes you is Euro Disney).
Morandi is yet another old-world theme park, complete with brick archways, wooden beams and chintzy-looking chandeliers (this is the cheapest feeling of McNally’s interiors), though little is specifically Italian besides the racks of wine in straw baskets. The size of the wooden tables—no bigger than Monopoly boards—makes sharing dishes excruciatingly difficult.
McNally’s formula also includes reliable, straightforward food. To cook, he enlisted Jody Williams (Il Buco, Gusto), whose lengthy menu, which favors the kinds of basics you might actually eat in Italy, is more authentic than the surroundings.
She borrows from all over the boot for her consistent, if uninspired, eats: Everything was pretty good or better, but little escaped without a note of how it might have been improved. Grilled fennel was as bland as lettuce. Pizzoccheri—a thin buckwheat pasta baked in a casserole with cabbage, bitto cheese (a firm, Alpine variety) and speck—was disappointingly mild. Even the speck lacked salty bite, and the pasta (from the pastafresca side of the menu—there’s also pastasciutta, or dried pasta) was mushy.
The closest I got to a pristine dish was a fried olive appetizer. Parmesan-stuffed green olives were embedded in ground pork, then deep-fried to a browned crispness. I also relished Williams’s rough-hewn fresh spaghetti, though the simple lemon sauce tasted too bitterly of rind.
There are a handful of fish entrées, such as scallops cooked to a near-raw tenderness in a caper-studded, plain-Jane butter sauce. But McNally’s Italy appears to be a landlocked region, where pastas and meats fare better than their aquatic tablemates. Heavy carne dishes, including Williams’s crusty pork-and-veal meatballs with pine nuts, raisins and tomato paste (fans will remember them from Gusto), are quite good. The most notable entrée, a huge, gorgeously pink veal chop, is smothered in gooey fontina and prosciutto, but the fine quality of the meat managed to shine through.
Desserts are largely textbook Italian (cannoli, granita...). A rich budino (chocolate pudding) is topped with whipped cream and a puddle of floral honey—its rich, light and cloying qualities play effectively off one another. The wine list is also classic Italian, with reasonably priced, rotating choices from all the country’s 20 wine regions, available by the glass (here, they’re water tumblers) or half- or full carafe.
And those glasses were refilled constantly. Service, though professional, is frenetic. It’s tempting to tell the waiters (strangely, I only saw male servers) to slow down and back off. Dishes came one on top of the other, and most tables turned over in 90 minutes or so. The only time the servers were absent was when I was fighting the crowds, trying to retrieve my coat. McNally himself stepped in. Though it took him several minutes to find it, Morandi didn’t miss a beat: A new party had already been seated in our spot.