New York chef and mega-restaurateur made his debut in D.C. a year ago with the opening of Osteria Morini. D.C. wasn't the only thing new about the move — the restaurant opened up in the fledgling Navy Yard neighborhood as part of Forest City's waterfront development, The Yards, and some customers had trouble figuring out exactly where the restaurant was. White, who was in town for the restaurant's first anniversary dinner, sat down with Eater (along with executive chef Matt Adler) to discuss the challenges and rewards that came during Morini's eventful first year.
Michael, what made you decide this was the time to enter the D.C. market?
Michael White: Many of my peers were opening up in D.C. at the time, so it seemed like a natural transition.
It’s always difficult to open up a new restaurant, but so many of the purveyors we use in NY, we can [work with here]; we have them in the system. There’s still a learning curve but having the products in place makes a difference. In general the proximity to New York makes things easier. I hopped on a train at 10 this morning and got here at 12:50.
It’s not always easy to open something in the ground floor of the building. When we [signed on] to Navy Yard with Forest City, there wasn’t a lot here. Everything's still finishing up — is it by 2018? [Matt Adler nods].
What made you decide Osteria Morini was specifically the right fit for the space?
MW: Morini is the concept compared to the rest of the group that has the most legs, if you will. Italian food is really the ethnic food of choice wherever one goes around the world, whether it’s Hong Kong, the East Coast, a different country. It made the most sense.
Matt Adler: The restaurant is so versatile, too. We talked about before we opened how in DC, you might have a Congressman in the dining room, a lobbyist eating at the bar, someone in a Nats jersey sitting down. When we hit April and May, all of that came to fruition. I remember one day when we had the head of the Federal Reserve at table 21, Nats fans at the bar, people from the neighborhood having pasta. It’s really a diverse group of people.
MW: And we wanted this to be the kind of place where you can have pasta and a glass of wine at the bar for $20, or come in for a nice piece of veal and a Barolo and spend a hundred dollars and get a totally different experience.
Matt, at what point did you end up coming on board and why?
MA: I had worked for Michael in NY for several years, but had left for a little over a year. Then this opportunity came up and it seemed like the right fit for me. My wife’s family is from here, and I have some family here.
MW: Plus DC is not a bad gig, right?
Did you discover anything that's different about the DC customer compared to NY and elsewhere?
MA: In NY, we had never really experienced the idea of opening in a whole new neighborhood. If we’re on Spring Street or Central Park South, everyone knows where that is. In the first few months, people were mad at us because they couldn’t find us. So that was really a new experience for me.
MW: There’s the Southeast vs Northeast thing. "301 Water Street," not everyone knows where that is. I was feeling good this morning, I got into a cab and the cabbie was like, "I know where that is."
I think one thing that differentiates DC is that people from all over the world will end up in your restaurant at any given time. In general, it's a very educated customer.
How different was Osteria Morini in DC from New York when you opened, and did that change at all throughout the year?
MW: Certain elements were the same, some were different. For example, at Morini [in New York] we do a dish with calves brains. Matt might do that as a special here. Is it on the regular menu? No. The ethos is the same — handmade pastas, salumi, grilled meat. But what we are doing, like we do with every new restaurant, is trying to gain the diner’s confidence. Even in New York, someone might not want to risk their whole meal on braised trotters with beans right away.
Right now, though, we’re moving into Osteria Morini’s sweet spot. The colder months.
MA: Even though it’s 70 degrees today.
MW: But it’s the best time of the year for the restaurant in general.
Yeah, all the pastas, braised items, makes sense.
MA: The Morini classics — the tagliatelle, the cavatelli — those are still some of the best sellers here. We were surprised at the beginning, we had a fried pig's head terrine. That was very successful. The crab sea urchin pasta does great. We don’t have that on other menus, but want to utilize Maryland crab.
Were things busy right away and throughout the year, or was there more of a slow build?
MW: There was a big push in the beginning. But we’re still in the building process every single day. But things are growing exponentially. In New York, we’re used to a ton of foot traffic, which we don’t have here. But we’re definitely seeing people come in for cocktails in the afternoon. We didn’t have that in the beginning. Games days are always really strong.
MA: The spring/summer/early fall is by far the busiest.
MW: It’s the opposite in NY, where summer is dead.
Well, even here a lot of places end up being really slow in August.
MA: We did not have that problem here.
So was the issue of people not being able to find you the biggest challenge you faced in Year 1?
MW: Yeah that’s the biggest challenge. And not understanding what Southeast [DC] is like now. People who have lived in DC for more than 20 years will come here and say they can’t believe how beautiful it is here.
What was the most memorable day of service this year?
MA: Opening day of baseball, without a doubt. At 3:45, the restaurant was empty. At 4 it was full. I've never experienced anything like that before.
MW: That's even crazier than lunch at Marea then!
MA: I mean, we were prepared. We even had some front of house people come down to New York to help with service. But it was very intense.
What are your goals for year two?
MW: I think knowledge is the most important thing we have in the food business, knowing what habits people have, what they like. We want to keep building on that. We keep careful track of birthdays and occasions. We'll even say to someone, "I see last time you came in here you had a Peroni, would you like that again?" People really respond to that.
MA: We have to continue to be willing to make changes. When we first opened had an Italian aperitivo happy hour. It was very traditional. People weren't really responding to it — it wasn't what they wanted after a long day of working hard at the Department of Transportation. So we made it more fun — dishes like sliders, smoked mozzarella sticks. All still well-executed. We weren't dumbing things down.
You have Nicoletta schedule to open here eventually. Any other expansion plans?
Nicoletta is the plan for sure. We wanted to get Morini up and running, focus on that. Other than that, we don't have anything in DC on the horizon.
Is spring the target date for Nicoletta?
MA: We're in the process of getting the design right and working out the kinks. If I gave you a date, it probably would end up getting pushed back
Anything else worth mentioning about the first year?
MW: Just that every time I come here, I see new things opening up. New restaurants. The grocery store just opened up. About 350 apartments are supposed to go up over there [pointing]. Everyone's really excited about the growth.
MA: It’s great to see something sprout up out of nothing. It’s very cool.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.