The other night, I ventured out to the artist formerly known as Gaia to check out their offerings in the local restaurant scene. What used to be Gaia is now Morello Italian Bistro. Named after an Italian cherry (I had to ask what it meant...), the restaurant reborn is a new take on Italian classics that accounts for the new economy. In other words, they have worked hard to keep the quality high and the prices low.
They are eager to get the word out, so they graciously invited me to ask them a few questions and sample their fare. In the interest of full disclosure, the evening was on their dime, but they want you to know they are conscious of your pocketbook as well. They want to be your favorite after work haunt and upscale casual dinner destination, and I think they have the chops to do it.
The restaurant's executive chef, Mark Medina-Rios, is a young man with a big plan. He's just launched a new summer menu to show off the best of the season. It features local produce and herbs galore. I sampled its Heirloom Caprese Salad with tri-colored tomatoes and a hint of lemon, and I had to steady myself from falling off the chair. The Italian mozzarella with a drizzle of balsamic disintegrated on my tongue, and only by the force of will was I able to refrain from licking the plate.
Other palate pleasers that started off the meal were the Whipped Sheep's Milk Ricotta on grilled crostini and the Porchetta. The crostini was an elegant take on a simple bread and cheese, with a pleasant contrast of textures and a tiny kick of red pepper. Porchetta is roasted, thinly sliced pork, and this one was served with pickled red onion and slivers of parmigiano reggiano. A good warm weather dish, it was savory but razor thin so it imparted all the flavor with a light touch.
I tasted two pasta dishes: the Seafood Chitarra and the Garganelli Bolognese. Chitarra takes its name from the guitar-like stringed wooden frame that helps the noodles take shape. I tried to get the chef to strum a tune when they brought it out to show me (no luck), but I was pretty happy to settle for its primary purpose. The seafood dish was delish, featuring calamari, mussels, clams, shrimp and a generous sprinkling of oregano. Garganelli is a tubed pasta with a textured surface that welcomes little settlements of sauce. The bolognese sauce, one of the restaurant's most popular options, is a vegetarian's nightmare with veal, beef and pork. A warm blanket of familiar Italian flavors, it was hearty without being heavy.
As if all these treats weren't enough, they brought out both the Branzino Caponata and the Lamb Chops. Branzino is a mild, sweet white fish. Served with the skin, which is a small deduction for my personal preference, it picked up the lovely summer vegetable fragrance of the companion peppers, eggplant, zucchini and basil. I fully confess my lamb-related bias, but it was a gorgeous dish served with fava beans, wild onions and something that convinced me that sardines aren't so bad after all.
Dessert included Morello Chocolate Signature, a multi-tiered chocolate orgy that I would have shoved into my purse if there were any chance it would have survived the trip. It was served with a milk gelato - who knew that dairy could be a palate cleanser? I also sampled the Fresh Cherries with pistacchios and a prosecco sorbet that could clearly register on a breathalyzer. If I have one regret in life, it is that it took me so long to know that prosecco and sorbet could live together in harmony. Finally, the Dolce Caramel with pecans and a caramel crisp coated my last nerve end and challenged me to roll myself home.
I count approximately 7,000 other fabulous things to say about Morello, but the most noteworthy are:
- They infuse their own flavored alcohol in-house, including raspberry gin and melon vodka.
- The dishes used to present the food are nearly as eye catching as the meal itself. They pair the plates with the food, including rustic dishes on wooden planks, elegant sauces pooled in modern white ceramic forms, and fluffy desserts on textured glass platters.
- The bar area has been remodeled with bright, cherry (appropriately) lighting and a grand, refined bar.
- Morello features local artwork and photos that profile the history of the space's interesting and dramatic architecture.
General Manager, Jimmy Branigan - who was the perfect host with a personality like a bear hug - wants you all to know that Morello offers:
- Live flamenco music on Thursday nights.
- Happy hour "second drink on the house" specials.
- $20 prix fixe lunch menus.
- $10 children's menus.
- BYO wine with no corking fees on Tuesday evenings.
- A tremendous Sassicaia Wine Dinner on July 19th.
They may seem like a quiet place from the outside, but Morello has a lot going on inside. I will be back soon - hope to see you there!