Celebrating in a historic atmosphere

Story and photographs by Bob Rozycki

Walk through the front door and past the bar of Morello Italian Bistro on Greenwich Avenue for the first time and you just might ask yourself, “Have I been here before?”

Blame Rafael Guastavino for that bit of faux déjà vu.

Here in this historic building, the tiled columns that curve like geometrically perfect plumes of water flowing into the vaulted ceiling were designed by Guastavino, the architect who created the space occupied by the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal as well as the Great Hall on Ellis Island where immigrants registered to enter the U.S.

Morello’s own grand room serves as counterpoint to its two mezzanines. If you consider going to a restaurant like going to the theater, then ask for a seat on the railing in the front mezzanine and take in the details of the architecture and the blur of waitstaff serving the diners below.

With an emphasis on fresh and local, everything is made under the watchful eyes of Kevin Garcia, the executive chef who joined Morello in April. He is part of the award-winning team of London-based Marlon Abela Restaurant Corp., led by the 38-year-old Abela who has been described by Britain’s national newspaper The Independent as “fantastically restless” and “alarmingly perfectionist.”

Abela owns Cassis Bistro, The Greenhouse and Umu, all in London, as well as two A Voce restaurants in Manhattan and Bistro du Midi in Boston. Also in the portfolio is Francois Payard Bakery, with three spots in New York City.

Abela has been known to stop in at Morello and General Manager James Branigan Jr. assures that everyone in the Greenwich Avenue restaurant knows the owner by sight.

Other frequent visitors include Frank Gifford and Kathie Lee and her former co-host Regis Philbin. “Regis loves his burgers,” Branigan says.

Keeping with the “source locally” mantra embraced by Garcia, produce, meat and fish from the Atlantic end up on the menu.

The menu finds its inspiration in Italy and the Mediterranean. Garcia credits Mario Batali, with whom he worked for three years, on knowing how to be respectful of the tradition of regional Italian cuisine. And that is why Garcia offers “a menu inspired by three of my favorite regions in Italy – Rome, Tuscany and Sicily.”

For antipasti you can start off with Beef Carpaccio that features shaved fennel, black truffle pâté and Parmigiano Reggiano. Follow that with Etruscian Faro Salad with gran faro, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, chilies, herbs and red wine dressing. If eating is 50 percent sight and 50 percent taste, go for the eye candy of Roasted Scallops & Caramelized Cauliflower. Go ahead, say it: bellissimo!

If you’re not hungry and perhaps just interested in stopping by for a cocktail, Branigan says please do so and check out one of Morello’s signature drinks.

The pretty much hard-and-fast rule that everything be made in house – breadsticks, ice cream, cheesecake – carries over to the bar. Lime juice from a bottle? Not here. Freshly squeezed, Branigan says.

For its sophisticated bar patrons, the restaurant has created a menu of cocktails from a White Peach Margarita and Passion Fruit Bellini to the Fiore Liz and Morello Twist to be enjoyed by the open sidewalk-side windows. For some serious palate-pleasing try the Morello Old-Fashioned. A grilled orange wheel gets muddled with a dash of agave nectar and bitters. Makers Mark, Jim Beam Black Cherry Bourbon, lemon juice and ice join the mix before getting all shook up. It gets strained and poured into a chilled martini glass. But before serving, coat another grilled orange wheel with brown sugar and caramelize it. Place it in the glass. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sizzle go to shh. Ahh, zen on The Avenue.

Morello Italian Bistro is at 253 Greenwich Ave., Greenwich. Reservations may be made by calling (203) 661-3443.

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