Morello Bistro, Greenwich
Morello Bistro ★★1/2 (Very Good-Superior)
New Italian restaurants are fun to explore because, while they speak the same culinary language, they do so with different accents. Some try to be as Old World as possible, others reshape authenticity to accommodate au courant food trends. Morello Bistro, where Gaia used to be, does the latter, with considerable verve and panache.
Hip antique? Could be. Faro, fregula, Swiss chard and speck are back. Osso buco has been refined. A layer of quince jelly anoints the panna cotta. All the old familiar flavors are here, reimagined to reflect the lighter, brighter way we like to eat today.
I go for the exotic: grilled royal trumpet mushrooms with a poached egg on top served in a deep bowl, with a goodly amount of intensely flavorful parsley-and-thyme-scented mushroom jus. I request a spoon.
Rachel orders tiger prawns. Huge, tender but not soft, tasting cleanly of the sea but not too salty, they perch jauntily atop a mound of cocoa beans glistening with rosemary butter. (No, cocoa beans do not taste like chocolate; they're similar in size and texture to the small white beans traditionally used in cassoulet.)
Garganelli alla Bolognese is a far cry from the all-too-familiar Americanized spaghetti Bolognese, usually a bowl of spaghetti drenched in a tomato sauce with ground beef stirred into it. In Italy, Bolognese sauce, slow-cooked with beef and veal, tomatoes and seasonings, is not served over spaghetti because the thick, luscious sauce tends to slide right off. Morello does it the way they do in Italy, serving the rich ragu over garganelli. We try another pasta and it, too, is excellent. Tagliatelle verde, a pleasing shade of green, cooked al dente but tender, is tossed with artichoke hearts, chick peas and fresh herbs. We love it and a couple at the next table are polishing off their platefuls with obvious enjoyment.
Osso buco Milanese is a refined version of what is traditionally a dauntingly gut-busting dish. Instead of a whole veal shank in a soup bowl, slices of meat are laid out on a flat plate and covered with a delicious rich sauce that goes wonderfully with saffron-scented risotto. A small piece of marrow bone resides on the plate for old time's sake. Prudent eaters should welcome this dish. I do too, but wish it had been cooked longer. I like my osso buco to practically collapse off the bone.
Rack of lamb, however, is supremely tender and juicy, embellished with baby Brussels sprouts, caramelized onion, pancetta and potato purée. The combination is tasty and the lamb arrives medium-rare as ordered, but the whole thing is cool-surprising because it's served in an iron pan. Roasted veal chop served this way is also cool. These are heavy cast-iron cooking pans, ideal for holding heat. I pick one up. It is cold to the touch. No wonder the waiter could set it down on the bare tabletop. I gaze at my chop. Thick, juicy, medium-rare-how alluring it would have been sizzling in a hot pan. Obviously, the pans are just for show. Our waiter has disappeared. By the time he returns, Rosaria and I have decided to eat cool food rather than inconvenience our companions. When asked, "How's everything?" I feel duty-bound to say. The waiter apologizes and $35 is deducted from the check. Fair enough.
Sautéed wild striped bass, on the other hand-thick, moist, perfectly cooked-arrives piping hot on a hot plate. Served with just a sparkle of prosecco sauce, it has a flavor that is mild and delicate. Baby fennel and sliced fingerlings seem just right with it.
Morello Bistro goes all out when it comes to dessert. My favorite creation, modestly dubbed "hazelnut fondant," comes on a rectangular plate, the better to accommodate its bounty: a scoop of hazelnut gelato studded with hazelnut crunch, four dainty little hazelnut macaroons and a miniature molten chocolate cake. Tiramisu is opulent and a light, home-style ricotta pie is garnished with fresh orange sorbet, an inspired touch.
The noise level is high as a kite but that's common nowadays. And the vaulted tile ceiling by famed architect Raphael Gustavino is too handsome to wish away. The staff is smart and willing (they just need to learn to work as a team), the vibe is upbeat and the wine cellar features over 650 different labels (60 percent Italian varietals)-but the major lure is intelligently updated Italian cuisine.
253 Greenwich Ave., Greenwich (203/661-3443)
Lunch Monday through Friday 12:00 to 2:30, Saturday till 2:30, Sunday brunch 11 to 3. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 9:30, Friday and Saturday till 10. Wheelchair access first floor only. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8 to $18, entrées $19 to $34, desserts $8 to $9.Morello Bistro, Greenwich