It took a while to remember when I had been here before: the large, luxurious restaurant space at the base of an apartment building in Sutton Place. It was Savonara, a terrific Turkish restaurant that closed three years ago, before anyone (but me) could review it.
The Palace, Bouterin, and Sandro’s, are among the others who have occupied that fated space, and failed.
Now comes Morso (Italian for “small bites”) from the well-traveled chef, Pino Luongo. I’ve never been to his other places, such as Le Madri, Coco Pazzo, Tuscan Square, or Centolire. Most of them are long since closed. Centolire is still open, except when it’s seized.
Luongo is not shy about slamming other chefs, whether it’s Michael White, Andrew Carmellini, or Mario Batali: none can please him. Perhaps he had better worry about drawing crowds to Morso. A recent weeknight visit found the space more than half empty. Those it did attract were mostly over fifty.
It’s a nice-looking place, with the walls decked out in vintage 1960s European poster art. And three cheers for Luongo for putting out tablecloths and not drowning out diners with the sound system. You can have a comfortable, civilized meal, in a pretty room unlike any other you’ve seen, and you won’t need to shout to be heard. Why can’t we have more restaurants like that?
But Luongo went to a lot of trouble (and expense) to create a restaurant very few people will see. No one draws a destination crowd to this neighborhood in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. It’s a looooong hike from transit, the area (though safe) is unfashionable, and there are a lot of seats to fill.
There are two central conceits to the menu. Most of the selections are available in two sizes, morso (a smaller plate) or tutto (larger). They’re organized by main ingredient (vegetables, eggs & cheese, poultry, etc.), rather than the standard appetizer–pasta–entrée arrangement, so there is considerable flexibility in the way you organize a meal.
The morso plates are $10–24 (most $18 or less), the tutto plates $19–30. Where a dish is available both ways, there’s generally about $5–8 separating the two sizes. There are about a half-dozen items only available in the larger size, and these range from $26 (pork chop) to $58 (ribeye steak).
It’s a structure that lends itself to over-ordering and upselling, but our server was remarkably restrained, advising us that two morsos was enough.
The appetizers were more successful than the entrées. My friend liked the Carciofi ($14; above left), a crispy artichoke salad with pickled fennel, olives, arugula, and citrus dressing.
And I adored the Uova ($14; above right), a soft poached egg with lamb sausage, chickpea fries, and a fontina cheese sauce. Puncture the egg and mop it up with the fries, and you have an instant classic.
The Maiale ($26; above left), or pork chop, looked promising: it’s a large hunk of meat wrapped in bacon, served with butternut squash gratin and winter greens in an apple-sage sauce, but the pork was slightly over-cooked.
Housemade Pappardelle ($16; above center) came with a brisket pot roast and a porcini mushroom sauce, but a large hunk of (concededly tender) pot roast on the side wasn’t well integrated into the rest of the dish. A side order of roasted Brussels Sprouts ($8; above right) was competently done.
I especially like the morso/tutto option on so many of the dishes. If I lived in the neighborhood, I would love having a place like this to drop in for something light, at times that I’m not in the mood for a big meal. And our meal was comparatively inexpensive, at around $125 (including drinks) before tax and tip.
But as I’ve noted in the past, mid-level Italian is the most over-saturated cuisine in New York. The chef is awfully impressed with himself, but hasn’t noted that food of this quality—or better—is available all over town.
Morso (420 E. 59th Street between First and York Avenues, Sutton Place)