December 3, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

Morso Gets Moreso

 

 A small chicken “mattone” is juicy, perfectly cooked, Pino’s own recipe.
A small chicken “mattone” is juicy, perfectly cooked, Pino’s own recipe.

 

 

          Pino is in the kitchen at Morso now.  Really?  Pino is cooking? How the flighty have fallen, I thought. We have to go. Didn’t I love Le Madri with his collection of women cooks? Wasn’t Coco Pazzo a music world hangout with food that we loved? A busboy at Da Silvano, after arriving in America without a word of English, at the peak of his power authority, Pino Luongo gave New York the taste of Tuscany.

 


Chronicling the rise and fall of Luongo’s empire, I remember him from his salad days.

 

          The ending of his empire was not pretty. Now, exhausted with the bankruptcy of that last bastion Centolire, he’s cooking at Morso, which he doesn’t own. The woman at the welcome stand steps out to help me open the door – “That wind is powerful,” she says, taking my coat.  A far cry from the hostile greeting weeks earlier when Luongo, the consultant here, was gone fighting the implosion of his last stand on Madison Avenue.

 

 
Not your classic trattoria décor, Morso has an original, youthful edge.

 

          Saturday night. The place is full. We’re at a tiny two because the only free corner table for a duo is opposite a gathering of small girls – what looks like a kindergarten recess. Odd looking crowd altogether. But who would you expect to encounter so close to Queens? This space, with whimsical 50’s advertising art on the walls, across from the 59th Street (Ed Koch) Bridge isn’t easy to reach. 

 

          It was once the imperial dining room for Frank Valenza’s fantasy of Versailles, The Palace. Later savvy eaters came when Tony May brought Sandro Fioriti to New York and installed him here. But a string of failed restaurants have fallen victim to its geographical challenge.

 

 
Brisket, Tuscan style with pappardelle is so rich, a smaller portion is ideal.

 

          With his lusty and luscious stracotto (“brisket pot roast, Florentine style,” as the menu notes), and the chef’s personal take on poletto al mattone, pressed poussin, lemony and wonderfully juicy, perhaps his aging fans will seek out Morso. Or are there just too many perfectly nice, or even better than that more-or-less Italian spots that owe a debt to early Luongo where a noisy younger crowd adds points?

 

 
The locals have already discovered the pleasures and calm of Morso.

 

          My friend and I don’t need a hot crowd for affirmation that we’re okay. We just want to talk and eat. I’m putting away one smart peppery breadstick after another, pastry chef Raoul Condo’s excellent invention, dipping them into the whipped ricotta – goat’s milk and regular, moistened with olive oil.

 

 
Remember Luongo’s bluster? Well, he’s humbler and tamer now.

 

          It’s the same menu Luongo dreamed up, “taking little bites of inspiration from all over the Mediterranean.”  But now he’s stirring the pots himself every night and tasting to be sure. He says his kitchen is staffed with crew that have been with him 15 to 20 years. Even the decor is do-it-yourself, the pumpkins, the straw, and on each table, evergreen cuttings, all fluffed up by Pino. 

 

 
Even if you aren’t sure what ails you, this hearty ribollita soup will cure it.

 

          We’re sharing his personal take on ribollita – the thick Tuscan porridge of beans and vegetables, normally thickened with bread.  He adds fresh beans and kale to the last cooking. A hodgepodge dish -- poached egg, Fontina cheese, pork sausage patties and chickpea fritters – could be supper.

 

 
This hodgepodge of sausage, soft egg and luscious chickpea logs could be dinner.

 

          On another evening, I can’t resist puntarelle salad, a thatch of crisp white tendrils and bitter green in a tart vinaigrette that reminds me of shopping for wild greens in the Rome market.  There are fried green tomatoes just because Pino happens to like them. “Actually there is a dish like it in Calabria,” he offers. He tries to make them more Italian with a toss of tomatoes, celery and cubes of mozzarella.

 

 
These bitter greens  called puntarelle remind me of shopping in the Roman market.

 

          Portions are generous.  Many pastas and some entrees ($24 to $34) are available in smaller amounts I can’t resist a Pino classic, the rigatoni alla butera (I had it every time I went to Centolire) – homemade pasta, hot and sweet sausage, peas, tomatoes, a touch of cream.  A smaller order gives us each more than enough to taste. 

 

 
Rigatoni alla butera – with sausage, peas, tomato  a bit of cream -- is a Pino signature.

 

          I urge my friend who’s never heard of cacio e pepe to try it. She instantly falls in love with the rich swagger of pecorino cheese and olive oil painting the noodles and the showers of grated black pepper. Al dente? Very. It doesn’t really matter that it’s spaghetti and not the advertised bucatini. Carbonara at another meal ought to be equally rich.

 

 
Lush and satiny cacio e pepe is a hit at our table, especially with a first-time taster.

 

          Pino emerges from the kitchen to confirm the waiter’s order. Am I sure I want the pot roast on pappardelle? “You already have pasta.” Of course, I’m a critic and he knows me, but still, it’s refreshing to be catered to by the newly humbled. Yes of course, I want to taste his pappardelle. It’s wonderful too. And sharing small portions of entrees makes sense at this stage of excess.

 

 
The chef likes green tomatoes so he makes them sort of Italian with mozzarella.

 

          A sauté of chicken livers could be even rarer and less salty. Still I’m happy to find someone who loves these livers as much as I. The salmon has no flavor at all. But the three-layer chocolate cake with Amarena cherries in a wine sauce is so good, we’re leaving on a high.

 

 
Amerena cherries braised in red wine are frosting on this marvelous chocolate cake.

 

          Pino gets the irony of his new life. “Now I am back where I started,” he says. “I went from the kitchen to the front of the house and now I’m back in the kitchen.”

 

          Il Cantinori was his first partnership. He kept wandering in from the kitchen to sell the big white beans, as precious as emeralds, to customers eager to learn. He went on to open Sapore di Mare in Wainscott, Le Madri with its three women chefs in 1989. (Bryan Miller, then the New York Times critic, called it ''the hugs-and-kisses-I-love-your-hat-Ciao-baby crowd.”)

 

 
Definitely a pear tart for two or more to share. Yes, it could be not quite so sweet.

 

          The wildly ambitious duplex restaurant and housewares emporium Tuscan Square Rockefeller Center and taking on the founderIng Sfuzzi empire did him in.  He emerged at Centolire with its $300,000 glass elevator to coax upper east diners to the dining room. He fell behind in the rent. Then the tax guys took his arrears very seriously and padlocked the door.

 

          Now he moves between Morso’s kitchen and dining room, chunky in his white jacket, schmoozing the customers. He is in the middle of a sentence when he suddenly spies Jackie Mason at the next table. Quick as a noodle on the verge of al dente, he is gone.

 

420 East 59th Street between First Avenue and Sutton Place. 212 759 2706. Dinner daily 5:30 to 11 pm. Sunday till 10 pm. Brunch Sunday 11:30 am to 3:30 pm.

 

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.

 

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