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Michael White's Osteria Morini Opens in Washington, D.C.

Michael White's Osteria Morini Opens in Washington, D.C.

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Things are looking up for the Capitol Riverfront district — perhaps best known for its proximity to Nationals Park — of Washington, D.C.’s Southeast region. The area has recently seen significant development, especially in the 42-acre space along the Anacostia Waterfront that makes up the major urban, mixed-use development project called The Yards. The neighborhood’s newest resident is Osteria Morini, which opened on Nov. 19. This is the first D.C. outpost of Michael White, executive chef and co-owner of the Altamarea Group. White’s group consists of six Manhattan restaurants (two have even earned Michelin stars), two New Jersey restaurants, and one restaurant each in Hong Kong, London, and Istanbul.

Just as its namesake restaurants in downtown Manhattan and Bernardsville, N.J., do, the D.C. location of Osteria Morini strives to showcase the rich flavors of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and invoke the warm hospitality that characterizes the region. Peeking through the menu, it seems surprising that White did not grow up cooking with an Italian "nonna." He’s actually from Wisconsin. He had no training in Italian cuisine until he moved to Imola, Italy, after graduating from the Kendall Culinary Institute. Osteria Morini is named after White’s mentor, Gianluigi Morini, owner and founder of acclaimed restaurant San Domenico in Imola.

Executive chef Matt Adler, previously of Osterio Morni Soho, Marea, and Ai Fiori, runs the kitchen here. In keeping with White’s culinary vision of osteria-style small plates and composed platters, Adler has created a diverse array of dishes fit to satisfy any Italophile. Prosciuttos, mortadellas, and coppas abound on the Battilardo di Affettati (Italian-cured meat) list, the perfect start to a meal at Morini. Delectable starters or bar-bites to share include the miniature arancini(fried rice balls) — stuffed with braised short rib and Gruyère — and the pillowy soft pork meatballs — covered in fresh-grated, high-quality Parmigiano cheese. Bite-sized Cappelletti ravioli, stuffed with truffled ricotta and topped with melted butter and prosciutto, is just one of many house-made pasta dishes. Fish is also prevalent on this menu. For a dynamic option, guests can order fresh yellowtail topped with spicy mustard crema. Perhaps the most-anticipated offerings will come out of the kitchen’s custom wood-burning grill. Diners can look forward to succulent, juicy choices including lamb chops and a 32-ounce bone-in New York strip — aged 40 days and cooked-to-order (go for rare!)

The restaurant’s dessert list has plenty of choices to please any sweet tooth. Tasked with providing a tasty ending to the Morini experience, chef Alex Levin promises a whopping 10 flavors of house-made granite and gelati available to choose from on each given day. Composed dessert dishes include a sinfully luscious Manjari mousse chocolate cake with dolci cremaux and a melt-in-your-mouth bright green pistachio cake served with a pistachio buttercream.

At the helm of the bar, beverage manager Jochem Zijp has curated a wine list that boasts 250 approachable labels, 15 of which are offered by the glass. The selection — heavy on easy-going sparkling wines like prosecco and lambrusco — showcases wines from North-Central regions of Italy (to match the cuisine, naturally). Also in the works is a rotating cocktail list, which will prominently feature Italian ingredients such as amaro.

D.C. food lovers, rejoice. Nat’s games are no longer the only reason to trek out to the Southeast Waterfront. It seems Osteria Morini is spearheading the development of a new culinary scene in the District.

Lili Kocsis is a self-proclaimed gastronome. She graduated from Harvard University in 2011 with a B.A. in linguistics. She dedicates her spare time to purposeful travel, food photography, and writing about regional cuisine under the penname MyAmusedBouche.

Celebrity chef Michael White to open branch of Osteria Morini at Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City

Tom Colicchio isn’t the only superstar chef to be opening a restaurant at Roosevelt Field mall. Hot on the heels of the Top Chef judge’s unveiling of Small Batch (to open later this year), Michael White has announced that he will open a branch of his casual Italian, Osteria Morini, in summer 2019.

White’s flagship restaurant, Marea, holds two Michelin stars (the only New York Italian to do so) his Ai Fiori holds one. The first Osteria Morini opened in SoHo in 2010 with a menu highlighting the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, the home of lasagna Bolognese, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma, mortadella and balsamic vinegar.

The menu in Garden City will be similar to Manhattan’s, with house-made pastas, Italian salumi, grilled and roasted meats and fresh fish — all washed down with a good selection of Italian wines. The décor, predictably, is contemporary farmhouse. In Manhattan, starters range from $15 to $19, pastas are $24, mains from $19 to $47.

White and his partner Ahmass Fakahany also operate Osteria Morinis in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., as well as other restaurant properties in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and overseas.

Unlike Colicchio’s Small Batch, which will take over the old Houston’s spot, Osteria Morini is carving out a new restaurant space. It will be just across the mall’s entrance from Bobby Flay's Bobby's Burger Palace, where New York & Company was. (That store has moved to the second level of the mall.)

With White, Colicchio and Flay at the mall, and David Burke at the Garden City Hotel, this corner of Long Island is rapidly becoming Celebrity Chef Central.

Dinner at Chef Michael White’s Osteria Morini in Bernardsville, NJ

One of my favorite restaurants in NYC is Chef Michael White‘s Osteria Morini located on Lafayette Street. Chef White is a true master of his craft, which he perfected in the kitchen of Ristorante San Domenico in Imola, Italy under the tutelage of Chef Valentino Marcattilii.

The Wisconsin born Chef White has the finesse and passion for Italian cuisine, namely the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, as a well seasoned nonna. So when I found out my wife & I had an appointment near Chef White’s New Jersey outpost of Osteria Morini in Bernardsville, I knew where we would be eating dinner.

The last time we were at an Osteria Morini was at the Washington, D.C. location during out summer vacation. My family & I were treated like kings & queens by Chef Matthew Adler and staff. So I knew we were in for a real treat the other night under the very capable hands of Chef Kevin Knevals and the staff in Bernardsville.

One thing, besides the grilled meats, that Chef White & his Osteria Morini are very well-known for are their house made pastas. The pasta dishes I’ve eaten at Osteria Morini are as delicious as the ones I’ve eaten in Italy. So we knew that we had to order at least one pasta dish, which we did. We started with the lasagna, which was layers of spinach pasta with ragu antico, béchamel, & Parmigiano-Reggiano. Italian lasagna is quite different from what we know here in the States. Béchamel is the star of a true Northern Italian lasagna, not ricotta & mozzarella. We also had an order of the super rich and delectable polpettine (prosciutto & mortadella meatballs baked in pomodoro sauce).

Polpettine (prosciutto & mortadella meatballs baked in pomodoro sauce)

We were also treated to two special dishes that were part of the Thursday night Feast of the Beast featuring red snapper. The red snapper crudo was a nice touch. The snapper was super fresh and overall the dish was quite light. The other dish was red snapper & shrimp polpette, mussels, fregola, & broccoli rabe. To be honest, I was a little skeptical about the red snapper & shrimp polpette, which are meatballs. WOW! Was I wrong to judge. The polpette were excellent. The broth was a real star of the dish. I could have easily dunked half a loaf of ciabatta to sop up all that delicious broth.

My wife order the pollo al forno, which was roasted organic chicken, roasted Brussels sprouts, & butternut squash served with a pancetta ragu. I loved the crispy chicken skin and the moist meat. The Brussels sprouts had a nice char from high heat roasting. Delicious!

I was in the mood for a hearty dish, so I decided on the stracotto, which was Sangiovese braised beef short ribs, roasted root vegetables, & horseradish gremolata. The short ribs were oh so rich and fork tender. The horseradish gremolata gave a nice bite that helped to cut the fat. And who doesn’t love roasted root vegetables on a cold Fall night?

Tiramisu (espresso soaked ladyfinger, mascarpone mousse, coffee crema, cocoa nib)

If you know me, you know I cannot end a meal without something a little sweet. Tonight was no exception. We were torn between the panna cotta and the tiramisu. We settled on the tiramisu (espresso soaked ladyfinger, mascarpone mousse, coffee crema, cocoa nib). I’m a huge tiramisu fan. And when it’s done well, it’s really a tough dessert to beat. Osteria Morini’s version was done exceptionally well. It was a perfect way to end a delectable dinner at one of New Jersey’s finest restaurants. If you happen to find yourself out in Somerset County, New Jersey & are looking for a great dinner is a casual & comfortable atmosphere then look no further than Osteria Morini in Bernardsville.

Michael White

Our site’s original content featuring Michael White
Position: Executive Chef and Co-Owner of the Altamarea Group.
Website: Altamarea Group
Education:Kendall Culinary Institute
Awards:James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant

About Michael White:
Although Michael White’s soulful, flavorful interpretations of Italian cuisine indicate otherwise, Michael is in fact a Midwesterner who spent his childhood in Beloit, Wisconsin. By whim or intuition, White decided to enroll in Kendall Culinary Institute and then secured a position in Chicago’s Spiaggia. He studied for seven years at acclaimed San Domenico in Imola before returning to the United Stares. In 2007, White partnered with Ahmass Fakahany, to open Due Terre in New Jersey. In 2008, White opened Due Mari. One year later, Fakahany and White officially formed the Altamarea Group to open Marea, which gained three-stars from The New York Times, and now holds two Michelin Stars, a Best New Restaurant Award by GQ magazine and Relais & Chateaux inclusion. In April of 2010, Chef White was named one of the 40 most influential New Yorkers under 40 by Crain’s New York Business, and received the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant in the country for Marea.

Just a year later, in October 2010, the Altamarea Group opened Osteria Morini in downtown Manhattan and Ai Fiori in midtown, which received 3 Stars from the New York Times as well as a Michelin Star.

In May 2011, Michael and the Altamarea Group opened Al Molo in Hong Kong. By virtue of greatness, many awards have been granted upon Altamarea Group properties including Marea’s 2012 ZAGAT #1 Italian Restaurant NY Award, Ai Fiori’s Best New Restaurant in Esquire Magazine 2011 and ZAGAT 2012 #1 New Restaurant NYC.

Altamarea Group opened Nicoletta Pizzeria in New York City’s East Village in June 2012. In May 2013, Chef White received his fourth nomination for James Beard Best Chef: New York and the Altamarea Group opened their fifth Manhattan location, Costata in Soho, followed shortly thereafter by a sixth location, The Butterfly Cocktail Bar and Supper Club in Tribeca. Michael recently released his second cookbook, “Classico e Moderno,” written with Andrew Friedman, with a foreward by Thomas Keller.

Michael White (chef)

Michael White is the Head Chef and Owner of the Altamarea Group, which consists of the eating places Marea, Ai Fiori, Vaucluse, Osteria Morini, Nicoletta, Costata and The Butterfly in New York, Osteria Morini and Due Mari in New Jersey, and Al Molo in Hong Kong. Marea has earned two Michelin stars and is a member of the celebrated Relais and Chateaux. [1] [2] Ai Fiori has additionally earned a Michelin star.

Nicoletta Pizzeria was White’s subsequent enterprise with the flagship opening within the East Village, NYC in June 2012. A second location opened in Bernardsville, New Jersey subsequent door to sister restaurant Osteria Morini in 2015. A 3rd outpost opened in King of Prussia in 2016.

In May 2011, White and the Altamarea Group opened Al Molo in Hong Kong, which interprets to “The Pier” in Italian. Al Molo is positioned on the Victoria Harbour waterfront at Ocean Terminal overlooking the legendary Hong Kong skyline.

In November 2010, White ventured into the delicacies of the European Riviera with Ai Fiori on the Langham Place Hotel with a Mediterranean-inspired menu that focuses on the Italian and French Rivieras. In its first yr Ai Fiori acquired one Michelin Star and three Stars from The New York Times.

In October 2010, Fakahany and White opened the primary Osteria Morini in downtown Manhattan which holds true to the wealthy flavors of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna area. In February 2012, they rebranded Due Terre in Bernardsville to change into the second outpost of Osteria Morini. Osteria Morini on the Navy Yards opened in Washington D.C. in November 2013.

In May 2009, Fakahany and White opened Marea which garnered three stars from The New York Times, two Michelin stars within the 2012 Guide and Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation. Marea additionally acquired a number of Best New Restaurant accolades from completely different organizations and has been featured in magazines everywhere in the world.

In September 2008, Ahmass Fakahany and Michael White opened their second New Jersey restaurant known as Due Mari in New Brunswick.

In 2007, White partnered with Ahmass Fakahany to open Due Terre and later Due Mari in New Jersey, and each had been extremely acclaimed. He then took management of L’Impero and Alto in mid-town Manhattan. Alto shortly garnered three stars from The New York Times and one Michelin Star for 2009 and two stars for the 2010 and 2011 Guides. In 2010, White additionally reworked L’Impero into Convivio, which was awarded one Michelin star within the 2011 Guide.

In 2002, he turned Executive Chef of Fiamma Osteria. The restaurant garnered a glowing three star assessment from The New York Times acquired a Michelin Star and White was named Esquire’s Best New Chef, 2002. White additionally introduced his well-known recipes to dwelling cooks together with his guide, Fiamma: The Essence of Contemporary Italian Cooking (John While & Sons, 2006). The restaurant has since closed.

Michael White spent his childhood in Beloit, Wisconsin earlier than enrolling in Kendall Culinary Institute in 1989. He educated at Ristorante San Domenico in Imola, Italy below the culinary steerage of chef Valentino Marcattilii. [2] [3] For the following seven years, he studied the hands-on, ingredient-driven cooking fashion of the Italians. Chef White additionally educated extensively in Paris and South France in several places

Michael White’s Osteria Morini nears Navy Yard debut, with Nicoletta to follow

When Osteria Morini opens near the Navy Yard in about three weeks, another star out-of-town chef will have planted his flag in D.C. Osteria Morini is an import from New York chef Michael White, who has nine restaurant brands (and two other Morini locations in New York and New Jersey) under his name.

Before Thanksgiving, Capitol Riverfront eaters will be sopping up pasta sauce and tucking into plates of grilled meats, all with a waterfront view. White's Altamarea Group has been eyeing D.C. for several years, tracking the rise of the city's food culture. "I was looking at the market and seeing a very positive momentum influx of young professionals coming into D.C. -- much as we have seen in New York," said Ahmass Fakahany, Altamarea's CEO and co-owner with White. "We got feedback that our type of Italian would be very right for D.C. and very welcome."

Their type of Italian? It's from the Emilia-Romagna region at the top of the boot, including Bologna and Modena. While the menu won't be identical to the New York and New Jersey locations, Fakahany says there will be many dishes in common, particularly on the list of homemade pastas, from cappelletti to garganelli.

In late spring, the group will open Nicoletta, based on the New York restaurant of the same name, in a seasonal stall along the Riverwalk Trail. While its New York counterpart serves sandwiches and other entrees, the D.C. Nicoletta will serve only pizza because of space restrictions in the stall.

The D.C. openings are part of a huge expansion push for the Altamarea Group, whose revenues increased dramatically over a short period of time -- from $3 million in 2008 to $50 million in 2011 -- according to Du Jour. Morini will be the fifth restaurant that the group has opened this year.

In the New York Times's lukewarm 2010 review of the SoHo Morini, critic Sam Sifton cautioned the restaurant against expanding too quickly. Fakahany isn't worried. "We have cultivated a number of world-class chefs under Michael [White]. The chef that we hired for D.C. has been in waiting for seven to eight months," said Fakahany, of Matt Adler, who has been training at Morini's other locations. "This is not an opening chef. He is deep in the game."

Osteria Morini, 301 Water St. SE (Metro: Navy Yard). Opening late November.

A previous version of this post stated that this was Altamarea's second opening this year. It is the group's fifth. The restaurant's quadrant has also been corrected.

Nicoletta Pizzeria by Chef Michael White and the Altamarea Group NOW OPEN in Bernardsville, NJ

Nicoletta Pizzeria Opens in Bernardsville, New Jersey

January 21, 2015– Nicoletta Pizzeria in Bernardsville, New Jersey is officially open and serving pizza and casual Italian dishes by Chef Michael White and the Altamarea Group. The new restaurant adjoins Altamarea Group's Osteria Morini with a shared new private dining space at 107 Morristown Road next to the new CVS store.

The menu at Nicoletta features the same high quality, artisanal ingredients served at the original outpost of Nicoletta pizzeria in Manhattan's East Village. Snacks and Appetizers include Meatballs, Spicy Chicken Wings, and Salads, Chef Michael White's world-renowned house made pasta, and baked entrees like Lasagna and Chicken Parmigiana complete the menu. Nicoletta's signature pizzas include a variety of specialty pies such as the Calabrese, topped with thick-cut pepperoni, house made fennel sausage and red onions, or the Tartufata, with prosciutto cotto, wild mushrooms, truffle cream and mozzarella. Nicoletta also offers a gluten free pizza crust for any of the pies. The highly acclaimed Fior di Latte Gelato dessert is available and served with variety of seasonal toppings. Nicoletta Bernardsville offers innovative artisanal cocktails, as well as a variety of local beers and wine selections.

The dining room is comprised of approximately 30 seats and shares the adjoining private dining space with Osteria Morini next door, which seats 35 guests. An exposed brick oven centers the large open kitchen for diners to enjoy the theater of food preparation, as pizzaiolos stretch and top the dough. Kitchen operations at Nicoletta Bernardsville are led by Executive Chef Bill Dorrler, who also oversees the kitchens at Altamarea Group's Osteria Morini (locations in NY, NJ & Washington D.C.) in addition to Nicoletta NYC and The Butterfly in Tribeca. Chef Dorrler will work alongside Nicoletta NYC's Chef di Cucina Michael Cariglio and Chef Kevin Knevals of Osteria Morini to oversee the consistency of Nicoletta Bernardsville on a daily basis.

Nicoletta will be open seven days a week, from 11AM to 9PM Sunday thru Thursday and 11AM to 10PM Friday and Saturday. Join us at Nicoletta pizzeria with your family, friends, or coworkers for a casual meal or a fun celebration in the private dining room. And if you prefer to enjoy a great pizza alongside house made wings, salad, pastas, entrees and gelato at home, the menu offerings will also be available for takeout.

H Street NE

Is the H in H Street short for Hip or is it just the letter H? It’s not a dumb question considering the crowds in this area are mostly hipsters and millennials. Today, they pack the dive bars, trendy eateries, and tattoo shops till the wee hours with nary an idea of the neighborhood’s colorful past. That all changed in 2001 when Atlas Performing Arts Center was renovated and helped begin a transformation of the area that included renovations, new businesses, and a new streetcar.

A once blighted area became party central, and today, brilliant murals add energy and color to the cityscape. Diaspora dining makes it possible to eat Lebanese fast casual at Micho’s Grill, nibble on small bites and wines-by-the-glass at The Pursuit Wine Bar, or dine at star chef Erik Bruner Yang’s places, either retail/restaurant Maketto or Toki Underground, D.C.’s first ramen shop.

Inside Caruso’s Grocery, a Decidedly Unmodern Tribute to Classic Red Sauce Joints

Matt Adler has no desire to reinvent the Parmesan wheel. Maybe it’s a sign of maturity, or simply the confidence that accompanies experience, but the chef and partner at Caruso’s Grocery does not care to wow customers with any newfangled culinary creations at the anticipated full-service Italian-American restaurant that opened this week in Capitol Hill. On the contrary, he’s a preservationist. His cause? The classic “red sauce joint” in the mold of Scoozi, his father Larry’s place north of New York City, where Adler worked the line as a teenager and throughout culinary school.

At the time, Adler grew bored with cranking out chicken Parm and meatballs, pushing him to travel in Italy and fall under the wing of lauded NYC chef Michael White, which is how he came to open Osteria Morini when D.C.’s Navy Yard was light on restaurants. At 39, though, Adler thinks about how Saturday and Sunday nights at Scoozi were always an event, how happy the customers were, and how Larry Adler had so many moves, like tossing a splash of limoncello in the shrimp scampi.

“Every time I read his menus, I’m like, why don’t I cook like this?” Adler says he asked himself.

Matt Adler is returning to the cooking style he learned working the line at his father’s restaurant in upstate New York. Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

At Caruso’s Grocery (1401 Pennsylvania Ave SE), he does, albeit with the commitment to quality sourcing and drinking well that comes from a partnership with Neighborhood Restaurant Group founder Michael Babin. Adler has put a lot of time into workshopping a straightforward chicken Parmigiana, taking care to thinly pound out 7-ounce breasts the same morning they’ll be coated in seasoned breadcrumbs, fried fast, and sold with a side of spaghetti for under $24. Chef de Cucina Marvin Lopez will be the one doing it every day.

“You have to pound them just the right way, or it’s too tough,” Adler says.

Mozzarella in carrozza was another Scoozy facsimile. Low-moisture, stringy Grande cheese gets layered with sliced bread and a puree of roasted garlic, lemon, and herbs before it’s all battered, fried, and served over tomato-basil sauce. Adler knew some customers might knock Caruso’s for cooking with veal, but it’s a staple of the genre, so he offers a Francaise cutlet with egg wash and Parm and a lemon-butter sauce.

Mozzarella in carrozza layers low-moisture, stringy Grande cheese with sliced bread and a puree of roasted garlic, lemon, and herbs before it’s all battered, fried, and served over tomato-basil sauce.

Curuso’s Alfredo get lightened up with mushrooms cooked down in marsala wine Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

Penne alla vodka with peas and prosciutto Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

Ricotta comes from Calabro, a distributor in Connecticut founded in 1953. Rhode Island calamari go into a semolina-dusted appetizer and a seafood fra diavolo with fresh tagliatelle. Although NRG counts Red Apron Butcher under its umbrella, Adler went with Alps brand soppressata for an appetizer offering both sweet and spicy slices. “That’s the brand that you would see at these delis in Brooklyn,” he says. “It’s got a little bit of milk to it. It’s just different flavor profile.”

Depending on the dish, Caruso’s will use fresh or dried pasta. Adler’s kitchen makes rolls its own gnocchi, fettuccine, ravioli, and bucatini topped with a spicy Neapolitan ragu. But he likes De Cecco pasta for spaghetti, penne, and and linguini in clam sauce: “It’s super consistent.” Adler’s personal favorite pasta is penne alla vodka with peas and prosciutto. He’s got dad jokes for that, saying “it’s healthy because it has peas in it.” The one exception to the unmodern approach at Caruso’s is fettuccine Alfredo, which can sink diners like an anchor made of cream. Adler’s version leans on mushrooms cooked down in marsala wine, shallots, and garlic to lighten the load.

Tiramisu gets served next to homemade digestifs at Caruso’s Grocery Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

A list of $10 cocktails includes an “antipasti dirty martin” that’s made with a tomato gin and olive brine and garnished with basil, mozzarella, and olives. Italian craft brewers Del Ducato and Del Borgo show up with a saison-lambic blend and a sour ale, respectively. NRG spirits director Nick Farrell makes his own limoncello, orangecello, sambuca, amaro, and espresso liqueur.

To accompany those digestifs, there are espresso drinks from Cameo, the Roost’s coffee shop. At the end of it all, Caruso’s offers cannoli filled to order with a mix of ricotta and Nutella. There’s tiramisu, of course, along with Brooklyn-style cheesecake and a blood orange creme brulee.

Adler and Babin didn’t want the place to look cheesy. They covered it in a beige wallpaper with an “aged” texture that looks about right, booths with a new-but-faded red color, and cluster upon cluster of black-and-white photos. A portrait of Babin’s grandmother, who ran the original Caruso’s Grocery in Louisiana, is by the door. A perimeter of photos ringing the the ceiling has such luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Tony Soprano.

Building an Empire

As the culinary mastermind behind the much-lauded Ai Fiori, Marea, Osteria Morini and Nicoletta (a new East Village pizzeria), this Wisconsin transplant has become NYC’s unofficial ambassador of soulful Italian cuisine. We chat with Michael about Italy’s allure, Midwestern hospitality and what’s on the menu for the Altamarea Group in 2013. What experiences led to your love of Italian food?

Michael White: I guess I grew up in a food centric family. Holidays were always exciting and prepared for with carefully thought out menus by my Mom. I found myself watching Great Chefs on PBS at a young age and looked forward to going to Domenico’s pizza for a slice (or a pie) whenever allowed. Midwestern Italian is a hodgepodge of deep dish Chicago pies, red sauce spaghetti and meatballs and overwhelming platters of baked ziti. But my love for Italian food really began when I first travelled to Italy after Kendall Culinary College. I went to work at San Domenico Restaurant in Imola, right outside of Bologna. I learned everything about Italian food and Italian culture. I met my Italian wife and fell in love. My love for Italian food stems far beyond the food itself. But regarding the food – I fell in love with the idea of a few deliciously fresh ingredients, which, when combined create something totally outrageous. The simplicity of Italian cuisine is what has kept my interest for so long. No matter what you are making, as long as your ingredients are the freshest available, the outcome will absolutely be tasty. People are surprised to hear you grew up in Beloit, Wisconsin. How have your Midwestern roots played a part in your culinary career?

MW: My midwestern roots have given me a wonderful support system from which to grow. I try and stay humble and always remember where I came from and how far there is for me to go. I like to think of myself as a visionary who is driven towards endless possibility. Without my humble upbringing and the support of my family and friends in Wisconsin, none of my exciting present would be possible. What do you miss most about the Midwest? Least?

MW: I miss Midwestern hospitality. Everyone is so welcoming and well mannered. I miss Wisconsin fish-frys, grilling brats on the lake in Summer time and quality vanilla custard. I really love New York though. This is where dreams come true. Many people are intimidated by making fresh pasta at home. Any tips for home cooks?

MW: Flour, eggs & water. What is intimidating about that? Try it and you’ll see how simple it really is. And if you really want to impress, nothing is more special than handmade pasta at home…except maybe a perfect souffle. Your restaurant empire keeps expanding. What’s next?

MW: Tribeca, UES, Washington DC are all on the docket for Altamarea Group 2013….The sky is the limit but quality is key. As long as we keep it consistent and my clients are happy…I’m happy! Kitchen utensil you couldn’t live without?

MW: I just need my hands and from there I can figure out the rest. Where do you like to eat in New York City? Most underrated food city (or region) in Italy?

MW: Emilia Romagna — home of the Ferrari track as well as Balsamico, Parmigiano, Culatello, Lambrusco…I could go on! So many amazing things come from that region – actually known as “La Grassa” or the fat one, which automatically connotes good food. What’s in your fridge?

MW: Whole wheat bread, mortadella, sriracha, Greek yogurt, Parmigiano cheese.

Interview with Michael White

Michael White grew up in Beloit, Wisconsin. While studying culinary arts at Kendall College, he started his restaurant career at Spiaggia, in Chicago. He worked and studied in Italy for seven years, at restaurants including San Domenico, in Imola. After returning to the U.S., he quickly earned the executive chef position at Fiamma Osteria in New York City in 2002.

Chef White opened two restaurants in New Jersey with Ahmass Fakahany in 2007. The duo then formed the Altamarea Group and opened Marea in 2008, which received a three-star rating from The New York Times and two Michelin stars, as well as receiving the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2010.

The Altamarea Group next opened Osteria Morini in downtown Manhattan and Ai Fiori in midtown, which received three stars from The New York Times and a Michelin star. In 2011, Chef White opened Al Molo in Hong Kong, followed by Nicoletta Pizzeria in New York City’s East Village in 2012. In 2013, he opened Chop Shop, his first London location, as well as his first Istanbul location, Morini—not to mention Osteria Morini in Washington, D.C., and Ristorante Morini on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Among other recent openings, the Altamarea Group launched Vaucluse, a modern French brasserie, on Park Avenue, NYC, in late 2015.

Chef White has been nominated four times for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York. He has released two cookbooks: Fiamma: The Essence of Contemporary Italian Cooking, and Classico e Moderno: Essential Italian Cooking.

Where did you grow up?

I’m from Wisconsin. It’s very cold, so cooking and baking was very much a pastime for me, as well for my parents. We were always in the kitchen. It can be 20 below with windchill, and obviously, there's a tremendous amount of snow in the winter. Although we were not on a farm, I did gardening and picking weeds and learning how to grow vegetables at an after-school park and during summer camp.

Also, as a young person, I didn’t eat frozen vegetables. My grandparents were from Norway, so we were always eating good food. I was a big kid I was always hungry. So I knew that if I was going to get into the kitchen, the fastest way would be if I got passionate about it. When I got into the kitchen, you got in for sheer passion because there was nothing to pull you in, other than reading Gourmet magazine or my mother’s huge stacks of Bon Appétit issues as a kid.

You left college for Kendall College’s culinary program?

I had a football injury in college and I was prepared to say, “I'm going to be a banker.” My father was a banker. And I said, “You know what, I'm going to take my chances and think about being a cook, a chef.” In that day and age, it was not very fashionable to do that, not like it is today. But it was something that I was passionate about and wanted to do. So one semester I just said, “I'm going to go to Chicago, to Evanston, where Kendall is.” And I did my first semester and just fell in love with it from there.

Then I was working at Spiaggia, in Chicago, at the same time, so I was getting lots of information and lots of training. So I was going to school in the morning, and in the evening I was working at the restaurant, so it was the best of both worlds—having school and on-the-job training at the same time.

That was 18 months total?

Yes. Then I went away to Italy in 1993 with the idea of staying for a bit and just getting my feet wet in Europe. So I did that, and six months turned into 11 months, and then, seven years later, I came back to America, in 1999, to be a chef de cuisine at Spiaggia.

Were you expecting to stay in Europe that long?

No, not at all. But being there, and working with the products, and learning a new language, and being part of that culture are really impressionable for a kid from the Midwest. Just being in another country, learning a whole new set of rules. I mean, you’re tasting fresh ricotta and cheeses—it’s just amazing, if you’re passionate about what you do.

That was a long period of time, working in the South of France. But then I got to New York. We opened up Fiamma in 2002, and since then I’ve been in New York City, pumping right along. And now we have 17 restaurants, but prior to that I did Convivio, and L'Impero, and Alto.

Had you had a French restaurant before Vaucluse?

No. Only at Ai Fiori had I delved into a bit of the South of France, and kind of Cannes, Nice, Liguria. It’s all very much homogenized.

What had attracted you specifically to Italy and Mediterranean cooking?

Italian is the ethnic food of choice for all of us in America, cooking what you grew up with. But Italian-American is very far from what, really, Italian food is about. Something like roasted chicken with porcini mushrooms, pancetta, and cabbage is extremely Italian—although it doesn’t sound very Italian because we all have garlic butter and cheese and those kinds of things. When the Italian immigrants came to America in the 1890s, the teens, the '20s, the '30s, they came here and there was no olive oil. There was no rustic bread that had a thick crust on it that was grilled on the grill. They were using hoagie buns. You couldn’t scratch garlic on a hoagie bun, so you would put garlic powder on it. There was no olive oil, so you put on butter or margarine, but if you wanted to look like it was abbrustolito, or grilled, you'd put paprika on it.

Basically, what we eat as Italian food has nothing to do with Italian food, just because it was a bastardization of it. You could travel throughout Italy and you would never see a lemon peel in espresso it doesn’t exist. There was no such thing as espresso in America, so they would take Folgers crystals, or Maxwell House, and they would put it in a sauté pan and toast it, but it would become bitter. So when they would make their mocha, they would put a little spritz of lemon oil on it from the zest to calm it down, the acrid qualities.

So Italian food is what we grew up with you’re growing up with the flavor-profile taste memory of garlic and oregano and tomato—but there’s so much more to Italian cooking than that. That’s what really got me excited about it.

So after you went back to Spiaggia, you eventually moved to New York.

I was at Spiaggia in Chicago, and I always wanted to get up to New York. I had worked as a stagiaire at Daniel, back in the early '90s—that’s how I got to New York. Steve Hanson was doing an Italian restaurant on Spring and Sixth Avenue. There was no name yet, but that was Fiamma Osteria, and that’s what I did with him. I came out and did a tasting and we made a deal on the spot.

That was was February 2001. I couldn’t acquire good cooks nobody knew who I was. It’s very difficult for all chefs that come to New York City. If you’ve never been part of the fabric of the city, we are not the warmest people when it comes to an outsider coming in.

We obviously got through it. We got three stars at Fiamma, and that’s really what set the tone for my career. I got a Michelin star there the first year the Michelin book came out. It’s been a fantastic run.

What do you credit with how your food was received right from the start? Was it your training in Italy?

Yes, but also having the sensibility to know what people need to eat, what they want to eat, to impact flavors. You can't cook the way we cook in Italy or the way one used to cook in Europe or Italy with heaviness, because New Yorkers eat out every day. And if you eat one time in a restaurant and you eat very, very heavy, you’re not apt to come back there for a couple of weeks.

So I can't do that. I have people that come to my restaurants every other day for lunch—or every day, for that matter. So the customer needs to be able to navigate a menu and not have the fear of being too full. They always want to know that they can get their service the right way, that they can get in and out.

A simple approach to Italian food is so important. You let the ingredients speak for themselves without adding so many things that don’t need to be there, as well.

Do you have any specific examples of dishes that were new at the time when you were working at Fiamma Osteria?

Whether it would be garganelli with prosciutto and cream— something like that is now happenstance around New York City. We made the quills one by one, prosciutto, cream, truffle butter. People make risotto at home now, but in 1990, when I started at Spiaggia, nobody knew what that was. Homemakers now say, “We do a soffritto with mushrooms and onions,” because Ina Garten is on television, or someone else is on television. So what’s happened is crazy.

Could you speak a little about your foray into Hong Kong, with Al Molo?

The Altamarea Group is a brand that obviously is fixed in New York City. At the same time, our customer clientele is on the move, traveling, and it’s a global city that we live in and a global world that we live in. But there are 5,000 people that work at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, and thousands of expats that live in Hong Kong. Then there is the business traveler. There's the mainland Chinese customer that we’re trying to capture as well, because there’s 1.4 billion.

So Al Molo is in Harbour City, a shopping center with 2.5 million square feet of retail, and a quarter-million unique visitors a day. It's a destination spot to go shopping for people from mainland China and for travelers from around the world. So the ability to be in that area and to have that much exposure is something that my partner and I were really looking for, because it can lead to bigger and better things.

Why do you think you and your business partner, Ahmass Fakahany, work so well together? What does an Egyptian-born businessman from Cairo have in common with a kid from Wisconsin?

Everything. Because we’re passionate about food, we love hotels. He wanted to be a restaurateur/hotelier, but his father encouraged him to go to business school first. Thank god he did. He was the chief financial officer and co-president of Merrill Lynch until he got into restaurants. We’ve been together since ’07, and he works with me every single day. He has a passion for food and a passion for wine.

So when both parties are in a business together and we both have the same kind of scope and process, it works well. He doesn’t cook, and I don’t do what he does. We complement each other really, really well.

I’ve always wanted to be a part of something great. Being into restaurants is a team sport and it’s not a “me, me, me, me.” People get into restaurants for so many other reasons, too: People want to hang out or they want to be cool, they want to invest money so they can hang out at the bar and impress their friends and things like that.

This is all about business. You can't say, “Oh, we’re going to make a Michelin-starred restaurant.” It’s just not like that. It’s me being years in Italy, years in Europe. Having a multimillion-dollar pressure on your shoulders to succeed, you have to really like what you’re doing. You have to have internal drive.

Would you ever host a TV show?

I turn all that stuff down. Not that I don’t like it, but I have a fiduciary responsibility to myself and my team members. We’re 1,100 strong in the company now. I compete for market share on a daily basis in New York City. People ask, “Chef, why aren’t you on TV on ‘Iron Chef’?” Because I “Iron Chef” every day, whether it’s with my lease, with my people, with the $15-an-hour wage issue. I “Iron Chef” when I sleep.

Can you talk about the differences between when you started in this business and now, when you’re an owner and you oversee 1,100 people?

Tenfold. Before, it was The New York Times and The New York Post reviewing restaurants and that was it. The massive amount of content that needs to be filled on the web every day now is insane. It has changed completely. People have that much more ability to say things that they like, that they dislike. Before, there were just three or four outlets, right? Well, there are a gazillion now.

But when there are 275 people in this restaurant, that's because of 15 years of hard work, shaking hands, knowing the people, knowing their son, going to their bar mitzvahs, their birthday parties. It doesn’t happen overnight. And that is why I will be here 20 years from now.

Do you ever reminisce about the earlier days?

No, because I’m a working chef. I hear young people that come into the restaurant ask, “Chef, why do you work?” And I say, “This is why we got into the business.” Many chefs, they just give you a recipe and they expect you to make it and they send it back to you if it’s not right. If you don’t show somebody and lead by example, how are you going to do your job? That’s why I have 17 restaurants.

What would you say to someone who’s thinking about entering the hospitality business?

I think one of the most important things is that they get into it knowing that there is a distinct difference between cooking socially and cooking professionally. They’re both beautiful, but they’re different things. I also think it’s really important that he or she gets into a kitchen and hangs out a little bit. I think we’d be doing people a disservice if they didn’t feel what it’s like to be inside of a kitchen in July, when it’s 90 degrees. It’s sweaty, it’s hot, people are screaming. It doesn’t bother me.

What is the difference between you making a meal in one of your restaurants versus making a meal at home?

It's totally relaxed, totally different. Very simple Italian-packed tuna, whole wheat toast. When I'm out of the restaurant, it’s my down time. I know how to turn down a little bit. But my wife is from Italy and she’s a very good home cook, so there’s always good food at home. That’s never a problem. But I’ll cook and hang out with my daughter and my wife.

What are some traits that you think are required to succeed in this business?

You’re standing on your feet all day, it’s hot, people are yelling. So you have to really like what you’re doing. I have worked for 25 years because I love what I do. It’s not a stress to come to work, even though we do lots of numbers and there’s lots of business.

You have to like to eat. There’s so many chefs that are involved in the process of creating, but they really don’t like to eat. That’s the old adage, “Never trust a skinny chef.” And I have people that say, “Oh, I want to be on TV.” TV and stardom and all of that is a byproduct of doing a good job, first. We’re very much committed to that, to teaching people how to do things, so when they leave here, they can go off and be somebody as well—because it’s a feather in my cap. Promoting great food, keeping it going.

Do you have a philosophy about choosing employees?

I can teach anybody how to cook, if your mind is open to learning. If you can accept constructive criticism and you have this passion, those are really the major attributes of being a chef.

Because you think it’s about you, it’s personal—but it’s about the business. It’s not about Michael White. It’s about you sitting down here, you’re having a good experience, we’re creating memories. It’s because we’re cooking great food. That’s why I want people to be in my restaurants—great service, great atmosphere.

I don’t want to let restaurants go. Meaning that many restaurants are becoming six appetizers, a couple of mid-courses, and six entrées. Because the weather and the atmosphere we’re navigating right now is so difficult—leases young people are going into Brooklyn people are leaving the city because it’s too expensive to live here. But people still want to get dressed up and have a really nice time in a nice space.

I want people to still be able to taste lobster with potato puree and truffles and a beautiful sauce. I don’t want to let fine dining go by the wayside. At Marea we plate in a certain way, like an abstract plating, modern Italian, kind of as it falls. But at Vaucluse we’re still thinking very round, center of the plate, pork chop with bone. It’s very classique. When you come here to eat, you will know what I am talking about.

Watch the video: Munchies Throwbacks: Chefs Night Out with Michael White (December 2022).