Good news for Upper East Siders: Morso, a new, reasonably priced top-drawer contemporary Italian restaurant with Mediterranean ingredients recently opened, tucked away on the ground floor of a high rise apartment house opposite the Ed Koch Queensborough Bridge.
It arrives with a fine pedigree, the offspring of well known Restaurateur/Chef Pino Luongo (Il Cantinori, Centolire) and Executive Chef Tim Ryan (formerly at Picholine and Bouley). They’ve come up with a menu that reflects the way most of us – especially women – eat, either sharing our main courses with friends or preferring a succession of small portions so we can enjoy a variety of tastes. Morso means “a bite or morsel” in Italian, and the menu, listed by food groups (vegetables, eggs and cheese, beef and veal, etc.), offers dishes ordered either as a Morso (small main dish) or a Tutto (large, main dish). Among other virtues, this choice of portion size allows diners to put together their own tasting menu.
The décor is an homage to1960s Europe and its poster art. It was an era when air travel first became widely available to middle class Americans, many of whom experienced Italy and real Italian food for the first time. The modern lighting and décor are designed to evoke a modern Italian trattoria. The tables are well spaced and the atmosphere is convivial but not noisy. The restaurant’s large main dining room – with a full service sit down bar – will be almost doubled in summer by a 70-seat outdoor dining terrace with dramatic views of the Bridge and Roosevelt Island cable cars. A private dining room with a 14-seat communal table is also available for special events and parties. The restaurant, already bustling, is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week and also offers a weekend Brunch menu.
From the Vegetables, Legumes & Grains category, we began with a salad of raw artichokes, shaved celery, pear, frisee lettuce and lemon dressing. Light, fresh and zesty, it was accompanied by a Roero Arneis white wine from San Giuliano, and spectacular fresh bread from Balthazar. (You can always tell the quality of a restaurant by the quality of its bread). Another one of us greatly enjoyed the Farro Salad with roasted almonds, dried apricots, eggplant and portobello mushrooms.
From the Eggs and Cheese Section, we chose a Tim Ryan creation, a meltingly perfect poached egg smothered in a Fontina cheese sauce with lamb sausages on the side as well as sensational, spicy chickpea fries. It has all the earmarks of a Brunch classic.
From the Beef and Veal category, we opted for Pino Luongo’s classic Fettuccine with a traditional Bolognese sauce – a poem of perfection – light, delicious and as a morso, just the right size. All pastas are home made and it shows.
Pino Luongo, very much in evidence, suggested the Sardines grilled with tomatoes, fennel, artichokes, and sun-dried tomato pesto over orzo. For those who love sardines, it was an amazing amalgam of tastes and textures. Another main course option, perhaps more mainstream but equally delicious and inventive, was Maiale, an ample dish of roasted pork with a marvelous apple sage sauce, layered butternut squash gratin, and mix of spatzle and winter greens.
I am usually disappointed by Italian deserts, but Morso delivered one of the best slices of cheese cake I’ve ever eaten – and I’ve eaten a few. This one was rich, creamy, moist and absolutely heaven. It was worth the many gym hours I needed to deal with the calories.
The menus will change four times a year. I look forward to further exploring many more dishes on the Winter menu — from Osso Buco to Braised Short Ribs in Barolo (a Sunday Special) – before the arrival of Spring.
For those who live on the Upper East Side and are always looking for a wonderful post-movie or after-work place to go, your wait is over. Morso is a keeper.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
420 East 59th Street
(Between First and York Avenues)