Review | Cucina Morini brings Sicilian spice and martinis to downtown D.C. (2024)

If you’ve had occasion to drop by the new Cucina Morini from chef Matt Adler, you probably know why navigating the lounge is like doing the limbo in a sardine can. The bar pours $7 martinis Tuesday through Sunday nights.

The Mount Vernon Triangle restaurant replaced Nicoletta Italian Kitchen, also owned by the New York-based Altamarea Group. When Adler and his partners mulled how to incorporate the coffee bar they also inherited, they knew that they “wanted it to be packed all night” and figured inexpensive co*cktails would help, he says.

They got their wish. Cucina Morini, sibling to Osteria Morini in Navy Yard, sells about 4,000 martinis a month. The signature Morini Martini blends gin, vodka and white vermouth and picks up steam with fresh dill and what tastes like pepper and caper juice. If you like your martinis bold, cold and bracing, this one’s for you.

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An inexpensive drink might pull in the masses. Dishes as simple as bread persuade them to eat here. Practice some self-care and order the sfincione. Baked fresh every day, the bread is crisp on the top and bottom, pleasantly springy in the middle and painted with tomato sauce made with roasted garlic and wild oregano. The menu’s bestseller is $10 well spent. And it practically becomes a meal when you buy into the optional anchovies or stracciatella (torn mozzarella).

Adler cooked at the original Morini, but he is best known for Caruso’s Grocery, the crowd-pleasing Italian American joyrides in the District and Rockville. His latest effort focuses on southern Italy, specifically Sicily, which he and his wife visited for about a month two years ago and which so charmed the chef, he reached out to the Altamarea Group to gauge the company’s interest in a same-flavored restaurant. Adler says he also wanted to break away from the confines of Caruso’s Grocery, be a little more creative and explore something “sharper,” as in spicier.

I’ve been on an omakase crawl for the past month — Japanese tasting menus are like pickleball courts, everywhere right now — and the crudi selection at Cucina Morini reinforces my appreciation for how D.C. chefs handle raw fish. The crudi at the Italian newcomer shine, literally in the case of dominoes of lush yellowfin tuna capped with a slice of serrano set on creamy, kicky tonnato sauce and finished with olive oil. Finger lengths of pale pink hamachi glide to the table with a little dollop of toasted pistachios and sweet-sour agrodolce.

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Sicily is blessed with quality vegetables, a lesson delivered by a delicious snack of cauliflower tossed with apricot and spark plugs including pickled shallots and fried capers. The other sfizi, or little whims, include a carryover from Osteria Morini — meatballs enriched by mortadella and prosciutto — and fried calamari, made similarly to the model at Caruso’s Grocery but with a finer breading. So yes, you want calamari from Rhode Island that’s light from a soak in club soda and fried so that parts are crisp and parts are soft. A small plate of stracciatella lasts about as long as it takes me to type this sentence. Shredded cheese excited with anchovies, lemon zest and salsa verde are to blame.

Pastas are rolled out on-site and offered in two sizes. The combination that puts me closest to sun-drenched Sicily is paccheri alla Norma (named for an Italian opera): fried eggplant, San Marzano tomato and filings of ricotta salata that melt in the heat of the large-tubed pasta, forming a web of cheese on the surface. Along with fresh basil, they’re just a few great ingredients playing nice. The warmth of the gramigna comes from crumbled pork sausage and a rich cloak of egg yolks, cream and black pepper covering the curlicues of pasta. Rigatoni boasts welcome resistance and a subtly sweet lamb ragu hit with rosemary. In my experience, the small, or primi, portions are enough for two if you’re also getting a main course. (The kitchen is in good hands. Chef de cuisine Kris Jimenez was plucked from Osteria Morini, which he still manages, and helped open the popular Le Diplomate.)

The wow among the larger courses is a roasted game hen that the spice-loving Adler says he makes at home. Glossed with chile and honey and seasoned with rosemary and citrus salt, the entree is as flavorful as it is juicy. The showiest dish is doled out from a Le Creuset pot at the table: a seafood stew built from sweet scallops, tender squid and shrimp that are cooked just right. The collection, including beads of pasta, benefits from a thin broth that’s kissed with butter and warm with Calabrian chiles. Thin, garlicky slices of toasted baguette are nice companions. I admire everything about the performance save for a couple of mushy mussels that tasted as if they came from a lesser kitchen.

More than half of the wine choices by the bottle are $80 or more. Why, exactly? Cucina Morini isn’t Tosca or Fiola. The red wine I appreciate with the lustier dishes is Sicilian and $60: a smooth-drinking Nero d’Avola from Tenuta Rapitalà with hints of eucalyptus and spice on the nose and cherries and pepper on the tongue.

Southern Italy is acknowledged with torta caprese, a fine flourless hazelnut-chocolate cake paired with vanilla gelato and smooth-as-satin chocolate sauce. My new favorite sundae might be the party thrown here, fashioned from vanilla and pistachio gelati, salted caramel sauce and hot espresso, poured at the table.

The high-ceilinged setting with big windows and slate-blue banquettes hasn’t changed dramatically from what I recall of Nicoletti. Rippled glass panels still divide drinking from dining areas, your feet continue to touch polished concrete floors and the knotty wood tables are free of covers — details that do nothing to tamp the noise here. If you crave (a bit more) quiet, ask to be seated in the cozy alcove whose rooster paintings underscore the Morini motif.

Wherever you sit, you get buoyant service from guides who know the menu and deliver orders with pride, and rightly so. There’s lots to applaud here.

Cucina Morini

901 Fourth St. NW. 202-697-6888. cucinamorini.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining and takeout and delivery for dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $10 to $21, pastas $17 to $32, shareable main courses $38 to $65. Sound check: 79 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; ADA-compliant restrooms.

Review | Cucina Morini brings Sicilian spice and martinis to downtown D.C. (2024)
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