Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
107 Morristown Road
Bernardsville, New Jersey 07924
Even during these difficult days, some local area restaurants are still offering exceptional fare along with cautious, socially distancing seating, and mask wearing servers.
A case in point is Osteria Morini in the New Jersey town of Bernardsville. The full service restaurant offers inside dining in their spacious venue, where tables are located more than six feet away from each other, or outside in the heated covered terrace, again where social distancing is strictly adhered to. They also have an attached pizza restaurant, Nicoletta, for casual dining.
Morini is renowned for its house-made pastas and our delightful wait-person Charlie, recommended that we try several of them. We laughingly agreed but insisted on appetizer starters of Calamari Fritti and Polpettine; Charlie approved as we had selected two of his favorites. Charlie is also the mixologist or, as he jokingly put it, the “intoxigologist” of the restaurant, and made one of his signature libations for me, Aperol Crush (basil and orange infused Aperol, Cocchi Rosa and Prosecco)… delicious!
The Calamari and Polpettine arrived as we were happily nibbling on their house-made crispy artisanal bread and aromatic herb infused (thyme, rosemary and sage) extra virgin olive oil. The Calamari was tender and deep fried to perfection served with two really delicious sauces. It seems that not only are the Morini pastas the specialties of the house but their tasty dips are also unique.
The Polpettine were good-sized meatballs made from prosciutto and mortadella and simmered in pomodoro (tomato) sauce; they are served topped with a large spoonful of mellow ricotta covered in sharp parmesan cheese and adorned with a few slices of their delicious char-toasted bread rubbed with garlic, to sop up the sauce.
Next came a parade of Morini’s special pastas:
Cappelletti Truffati: ravioli made with ricotta flavored by truffles and dressed with a silky melted butter sauce and small slices of prosciutto. The smell is divine and adding a touch of freshly ground black pepper - suggested by Charlie - makes the dish sing.
Gnocchi: ricotta dumplings with small pieces of squash dressed with brown butter, sage and balsamic sauce was unusual and utterly delicious. I am not a fan of Gnocchi but these were small, delicate bits of tender delicious heaven swimming in a sea of flavor.
Bucatini: hollow pasta tubes (looks like fat spaghetti), marinated mussels-off-the-shell, shrimp, garlic, chili and basil in a spicy pomodoro sauce. Manos is a big fan of Bucatini because his mother used it to make “pastitsio” a Greek baked pasta dish with Bucatini, ground meat and béchamel sauce, and it is rare to find this pasta even in an Italian restaurant. I find it too doughy and difficult to maneuver due to its robust size. The seafood was flavorful and well prepared and if you, like Manos, enjoy Bucatini this dish is for you.
As you probably can imagine, my eyes were rolling at this point, wanting desperately to finish all of the dishes presented but knowing more was to come, so we again took Charlie’s advise and ordered Pollo Al Forno, a specialty of the house. It is a full half roasted chicken resting on a base of butternut squash, roasted Maitake mushrooms and a huge serving of grilled Brussels sprouts. The chicken was succulent with crispy skin and a consistency very reminiscent of duck. I’m unsure how this was achieved, but kudos to Chris DiGiandomenico, Chef de Cuisine, who in the tradition of some of the best cooks in the world, learned his skills in his Grandmothers kitchen, under her watchful eye.
Our dinner ended with a sampling of the desserts: Nocciola, a hazelnut mousse, whipped chocolate ganache with chocolate-hazelnut crunch; Apple Cake, brown sugar maple apple cake, whipped crème fraiche, roasted caramel apples sprinkled with granola; Gelato in three flavors, vanilla, strawberry and pistachio. Manos ended with his usual espresso and, since I declined coffee, Charlie made a special coffee flavored digestif to send us on our way fully sated.
The restaurant has a very nice wine list, not large, but with enough wine variety to satisfy most palates. However, we had received a couple bottles that Manos had to taste, so we brought them with us. One was a rosé from Germany, from the Mosel Valley, and the second was a Super Tuscan from Tenuta di Arceno, a vineyard and winery near Siena.
The rosé did not work with the Italian fare; the intense tomato and aromatics sauces completely overpowered it. But the Super Tuscan, a Bordeaux-styled red blend that has no Sangiovese but is actually made from 73% Cabernet Franc and 17% Merlot with the balance being Cabernet Sauvignon, was a formidable libation. The wine is elegant and vibrant, with well-developed tannins and good acidity. It paired very well with the Morini fare; especially the Polpettine, the Bucatini with the frutti-di-mare, and the Pollo al Forno.
The restaurant’s wine list contains a 2017 Barbera d’ Alba Poderi Colla “Costa Bruna” from Piedmont and a 2014 Brunello Albatreti; we know both, and both would pair very well with the Osteria’s food.
When we first arrived at the restaurant, the outside covered space was almost fully occupied while the inside dining-room was almost empty with the exception of a table of three, at the far end of the room. By the time we left, both inside and outside spaces were almost full, still keeping social distancing, and the restaurant was humming. I’d wholeheartedly recommend this restaurant.
And a great time was had by all.
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