Photos by Nicholas Karlin, Words by Diana Metzger
When your meal starts off with a casual taste of a dessert, you know it’s going to be a great one. Chef Ben Pflaumer brings out these little mini muffin size panettones for us to try. He’s currently in the testing process for the treat and seems a bit disparaging of what we’re about to try. He believes there’s room for improvement. These little panetonnes are set to be the parting gift for the delicious four-course Italian Christmas feast so it’s understandable he’d want the final element to be perfect. I must say that if these panettones aren’t considered perfection than whomever gets to taste the final results are darn lucky. Panettones are a traditional Christmas treat from Milan. They normally are about the size of a dollhouse and rock hard stale and come in their own cardboard carrying case. I hope Chef Ben of Osteria Morini’s spin on the panettone becomes the gold standard: it’s a three bites, served warm, with a unique addition of chocolate dappled throughout that takes it from simply sweet to decadent. Chef thinks it may be too dense, but I adored the almost bread pudding like consistency.
The Feast of Seven Fishes is an Italian celebration of Christmas Eve featuring a meal of fish and other seafood. It originates in Southern Italy, where it’s known as La Vigilia (or The Vigil) because Christmas Eve is considered a vigil or fasting from red meat before the larger meal on Christmas Day. As the name implies, the meal consists of seven different seafood dishes. With Osteria Morini’s take on the feast, you definitely won’t miss red meat or feel like you’re having a fast of any kind. While Morini’s food is Northern Italian, it feels like a natural fit for the restaurant, with their riverside location and focus on excellent seafood dishes.
We’re poured glasses of Emilia ‘Leclisse’ Lambrusco to get the meal off to a festive start. This Lambrusco variant is light and bubbly with the look of a sparkling rosé. It’s very cirtrusy with a nice tart kick. Wine pairings don’t come with the meal but are available for an additional fee and certainly helped get us in the spirit of the season. The wine is a fine compliment to the amuse bouche of salt cod croquettes nestled by a dollop of lemon crème with a circle slice of pickled red onion on top. This amuse is one of a few that will the circulating during the meal. Salted cod is a tradition Feast of Seven Fishes’ dish and this is a really fun take on it. The cod is really nicely fried, not too bready and the onion and light, mustardy crème helps cut the cod’s salty, dense flavor. It’s a great little bite, any more than what’s served would be too heavy of a start to what is otherwise a really great, balanced meal in terms of light and heavier dishes.
Each course is served family style with two offerings for each course. It’s as if you’re eating a festive home cooked meal—if you had a fantastic Italian chef in your family and your home was full of gorgeous light wood furnishings and large windows overlooking the river as snow fell. There was seriously snowfall as we ate our meal, it’s as if Osteria Morini had Mother Nature on retainer for setting the mood. One of the dishes of the first course was a Bay Scallop Crudo with ruby red grapefruit and Serrano chilis and pine nuts sprinkled throughout. It was really the ideal mix of kick from the chilis and the grapefruit along with a light texture of the scallops. The broth those flavors created I could have drank off the plate.
Luckily they bring baskets of warm, house made rosemary focaccia for dipping in olive oil or getting that last drop of sauce off a plate. The second plate of the first course was a panzenella with gorgeous giant octopus tentacles. The octopus was perfectly cooked with an almost caramelized taste, cooked with roasted garlic and honey. The panzenella is made with croutons and the clever addition of cauliflower and the large capers. These two dishes were such a fitting match – one light and crisp and the other very earthy and cozy.
The second course, the pasta course, called for a darker, drier wine. We were poured the Emila ‘Gibe’ Lambrusco. It’s much drier than the first Lambrusco but the nose is very fruity and it has the rich taste of currants. It’s an excellent addition to the flavorful, rich handmade pastas placed at the table. There was the standout of the meal, Maine lobster filled raviolis with smokey, sheet-thin black trumpet mushrooms, in a lobster stock broth cooked with lots of brandy and madera. The ravioli’s had a beautiful simplicity, cooked almost al dente full of truly unadorned lobster meat, allowing the shellfish to really stand out.
The second pasta were delicious squid ink bomba calabrese noodles with braised squid, scattered with bread crumbs which add great textural variety.
The third course, the fish dishes, come paired with a Pouilly-Fumé Sauvignon Blanc with a zesty taste that helps to cut the rich flavor of the swordfish dish. The swordfish, fresh from the Outer Banks area, has gorgeous smoky grill marks and rests on a sauce of fennel hollandaise. It’s a really nice match of creamy flavor with the spare grill taste of the fish. It also benefits from a kick provided by blood ranges and a satisfying pop of trout roe.
The other dish are head on Cape May pan-roasted shrimp on a bed of al-dente chickpeas and a splash of a thin salsa verde.
The forth dessert course continued the meal’s consistent, clever trend of one light dish and one more dense. These desserts were doubly special because while a third of the rest of the meal are dishes currently found on Osteria Morini’s current menu, the desserts are made special for this feast. They are absolutely worth the trip and for making sure you save room in your already quite sated stomach. There’s a chocolate tart with a bittersweet finish and a crust that melts in your mouth. The tart is topped with candied chestnuts that almost seem like a culinary magic trick. They have the consistency of a yummy chewy candy and it’s not until the finish that you get that hint of nutty flavor. It’s wild. The second dessert is a wonderful light, fluffy ginger molasses mousse tart resting on a thin layer of white chocolate with a really tasty cranberry compote and orange zest on top that give the creamy mousse a little kick.
There is not one bad dish in the bunch. This is a last meal/dream meal kind of lineup of dishes. My only complaints would be that both the pasta dishes felt quite heavy and it would have been nice to have a lighter alternative. The ravioli has got to stay and I do love squid and squid ink pastas but these two dishes didn’t pair as well as some others. Also the shrimp dish is tasty, mostly because the shrimp are cooked really well, but it feels less interesting flavor wise than some of the other offerings.
In terms of bang for your buck, this meal doesn’t come cheap at $65 a head (not including drinks, which are pricy here, as to be expected), but considering you get eight dishes and most entrees alone at Osteria Morini are between $18-30, you’re getting a steal for this restaurant. This is a meal best enjoyed with a larger group, since it’s served family style and it’s a lot of food for one couple. It’s also a feast for more sophisticated eaters. As it states in the title, there is no reprieve from seafood, except for dessert, so vegetarians need not apply. This also is a lengthy meal so you may find it’s not the best fit if you have small, impatient children in tow.
The feast took us almost three hours to enjoy and the time flew by because of how much we savored each dish and the excellent pacing of the feast. No matter how much you love or hate your extended family, take them to this meal and you’ll all leave incredibly satisfied and fully blissed out.