Mar 20, 2024 - Food and Drink

Caruso's Grocery chef opens a coastal Italian restaurant

A wooden table with blue plates of clam pasta, seafood crudo and penne

Coastal Italian pastas and crudo. Photo: courtesy of Nina Palazzolo

Sicilian crudos. Homemade pastas. There's a lot to get excited about at Cucina Morini, a new coastal Italian restaurant opening in Mt. Vernon Triangle on March 26.

Why it matters: Chef/partner Matt Adler built a packed-house following at his red sauce joint, Caruso's Grocery, and this latest venture is a promising return to his regional Italian roots.

Flashback: Adler's first leading kitchen gig was at Michelin-starred Convivio from NYC-based Altamarea Group, who also brought him on board to open Navy Yard's Osteria Morini — their first D.C. expansion — over a decade ago.

Between the lines: The hospitality group (sans Adler) opened a Mt. Vernon pizza place, Nicoletta Kitchen, which closed during the pandemic. Instead of a second act, they brought on Adler for a fresh concept — plus a 20-seat aperitivo bar where adjoining Brew'd Coffee once lived.

An entryway with two seats at a small bar, colorful wallpaper with trees and blue door
No more pizzeria vibes thanks to a design revamp. Photo: courtesy of Nina Palazzolo

Dig in: Expense-account Italian dominates in downtown D.C., so Adler wanted to build a more versatile neighborhood destination — think a bowl of pasta one evening, a date-night dinner another. "Pricing fatigue is real. We want to use great ingredients and focus on technique, but approach Coastal Italian and seafood at a price point that's more friendly," he tells Axios.

Case in point: $7 martinis will be offered all night in the aperitivo bar, including a savory "Morini Martini" with Vesper-style gin and vodka, caper juice, dill, and a parmesan crisp. Also: draft espresso martinis.

  • All homemade pastas like spaghetti with clams or truffle-ricotta ravioli are offered in more wallet-friendly half-portions (around $18) as well as full.
A plate of anchovies and glass of wine (left) and martini with dill on top
Aperitivo hour: homemade stracciatella cheese with anchovy (left) and a Morini martini. Photo: courtesy of Nina Palazzolo, Steve Vilnit

Zoom in: Adler spent a lot of time in Sicily — his wife's family is from the Aeolian Islands — so you'll see plenty of capers and fiery Sicilian olive oil. "Spicy, highly seasoned, lots of acid and anchovy," Adler says.

  • Diners can start with Sicialian-style crudos, sfincione (a tomato focaccia nicknamed "Sicilian pizza"), or small plates that go heavy on seasonal vegetables and dressed cheeses.
  • Large plates may seem pricey, but platters like roasted game hen alla diavola with citrus-chicory salad ($38) are designed for two or more.
A pot filled with seafood stew with shrimp, mussels, calamari and scallop.
Shareable entrées include seafood stew. Photo: courtesy of Nina Palazzolo

The intrigue: Adler's a good chef to follow on social for industry insights and kitchen backstories for those who want to go deeper on that pasta alla Norma.

What's next: Cucina will open only for dinner to start, but look for brunch to launch in the coming weeks.

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