Appetizers-small plates: $6-$12
Main courses: $10-$25
Spicy roasted mussels, ravioli Bolognese, fennel-lemon chicken, daily fish selection
Chef Michael DiBianca, like many of our favorite actors, comedians and surgeons, is lauded for his ability to improvise.
Dig the way his Website promulgates such sparkling copy as “culinary whims” and (my favorite) “Cooking is an art, and art is never the same.” More apt examples were the chef’s legendary five-course tasting dinners at his Moro restaurant, his ochre-hued and slightly hidden bistro on Scott Street in Wilmington.
Since Moro’s beginning, its New American-Mediterranean plates have, indeed, been art. Colorful and whimsically constructed, DiBianca’s dishes, with high-end and effete ingredients such as lavender-scented foie gras with roasted plum demiglace and blue cheese crumbles, wowed just about everyone. Critic Pam George wrote “Moro can claim the ‘X’ factor, the star quality so bandied about on ‘American Idol.’ It has the perfect blend of whimsy, style, talent and, perhaps most importantly, good taste.”
Which I guess, to DiBianca, is the perfect time to change everything.
There’s that improv again. In October the chef initiated the biggest change in Moro’s eight years. He ditched the ring molds and the Hawaiian pink salt and adopted a simpler, more rustic approach to Italian cuisine.
But why? Especially if it endangers that X factor?
“Mostly it was out of boredom,” he says with a laugh. “My background is for this sort of stuff. New American was something that allowed me to do whatever I wanted.”
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It’s certainly a gamble, and the new Moro does dial down a bit of artistry in favor of ingredients with backbone, like simple roasted beets, house-made tagliatelle, and a daily fish selection dressed either à la agrumi (citrus, olive oil, sea salt, arugula), Palermitana (black olives, tomato, fried capers, white wine, basil), and so forth.
DiBianca’s new leaf confirms his stature as one of the best chefs in the state. Without the safety net of Iron Chef-like presentations, he lets his ingredients do the showboating. Along the way he proves there’s room for imagination and creativity while he’s reinventing classic dishes.
What’s never lost is DiBianca’s ability to juggle flavors. Incendiary red pepper flakes ignited a bowl of plump Blue Bay mussels that coasted in orange-wine-basil broth. Threaded between the shells were crisp chunks of duck confit, dutifully smoothing the edges carved by the pepper and citrus. With this many flavors in play, DiBianca manages to give each a stage from which to project vividly.
Elsewhere, fennel seed, lemon and honey fortified perfectly crackly skin on a juicy, quartered Lancaster chicken, while underfoot a fragrant ragout of apple and wild mushrooms made the perfect milieu to an autumn dish.
Such was the good vibe generated by Moro’s successful dishes: a warming characteristic when the right ingredients come together in concert, a trait shared by the likes of ravioli Bolognese and duck confit risotto. The risotto was rendered especially moist, the slightly loose Arborio swimming in sweetness and smokiness from chunks of apple and crispy, salty threads of duck.
Even when he went for simplistic, DiBianca injected his dishes with a graceful note. A humble bowl of white beans—part of a new selection of small plates of seasonal vegetables—joined tender shaved fennel and fresh herbs to create a dish with dimension. And cinnamon cream cheese mousse, sage-infused marshmallows and crispy house-fried carrot chips countered the density of Moro’s staple carrot cake.
Wallets and purses will find Moro’s new menu easier to handle (dishes rarely crack $20), but it is still quite easy to splurge here, especially when it comes to wine. DiBianca’s list is comprehensive but hardly budget. If you feel like dropping the funds, the selection makes an oenophile’s playground. There are also some very nice finds by the glass and via the cruvenet.
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A few cosmetic changes to Moro fall under the “subtle” category (new burgundy carpet, window treatments, light fixtures, etc.). One new addition is part decoration, part showpiece. DiBianca recently sourced an immense leg of jamón Ibérico, a cured Spanish ham that’s seen so rarely in the United States, its price per kilogram probably eclipses the value of rhodium.
DiBianca displays the ham in the antipasti station, where it beckons guests as they enter the restaurant. He sells 1.5 ounces of the meat for $20.
Is it worth it? I never summoned the will to try, especially after another Moro investment fizzled slightly. A 12-ounce, house-cut ribeye, sheathed in a pillowcase of melted mozzarella, looked like the mother of all mains. But it didn’t deliver the crescendo I expected. Where it was good, it was very good, but the beef was ultimately stymied by too much gristle—at $40 for the beef, that much gristle was unacceptable.
A precious few other dishes missed their marks. A skate wing rollatini with prosciutto and fresh basil inside simply did not work. The fish was a bit undercooked and carried an alkaline sting that overpowered its usual sweetness. A plate of gnocchi felt pasty. It also looked like it had been flung together haphazardly with Italian sausage, broccoli rabe and Gorgonzola.
It’s also worth mentioning that Moro, with its street parking and encyclopedic wine list, exhibits a big-city urbanity. New menu aside, it was disheartening to be greeted at the door not by a smiling hostess, but by a glowering one. This happened a few times.
Nevertheless, Moro’s rep among Delaware’s big boys is secure. And some affordable urbanity for Wilmington’s Trolley Square area can be a very good thing, as the crowd of DuPonters and city-dwellers who crowded the restaurant could attest. With DiBianca at the helm, his boredom is his best weapon.