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Chef Michael White's Osteria Morini Turns to State Court in Bid to Expand

By Andrea Swalec | January 22, 2013 8:35am

MANHATTAN — The acclaimed SoHo restaurant Osteria Morini is still fighting for more space to serve high-end Italian food after the local community board voted down its expansion plan earlier this year.

The eatery led by James Beard Award nominee Michael White recently filed a petition in New York State Supreme Court asking a judge to overrule a State Liquor Authority decision that would likely prevent the 218 Lafayette St. restaurant from creating a private dining room next door.

Attorneys for Morini argue in documents filed Jan. 7 that the SLA acted "arbitrarily" in ordering an evaluation of the spot's proximity to other establishments with full liquor licenses.

Known as the 500-foot rule, SLA policy — with some exceptions — prohibits alcohol-serving establishments from opening if there are three or more other spots with a full liquor license within 500 feet, unless the new establishment is shown to be in the public's interest. Morini's lawyers argue that because the restaurant has requested an alteration of its existing license, not a new license, the rule should not apply.

"In order for someone to access the proposed private dining room on the second floor of 216 Lafayette Street, he or she must enter 218 Lafayette Street and walk up a set of stairs," the petition states. "Thus, the only rational conclusion to be reached is that the second floor space is part of, and 'contained within' [Morini] and therefore, [Morini] was not required to obtain a new license to alter the [restaurant]."

The SLA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Starting last May, Morini — which is part of the Altamarea restaurant empire that includes Marea on Central Park South and Ai Fiori in the Setai Hotel on Fifth Avenue — lobbied CB2 and the SLA for permission to create an additional dining room next door to the popular restaurant.

But some residents opposed the expansion, arguing it would create additional noise, traffic and exhaust in an already bustling area.

"[Morini] is already as big as a restaurant in that area should be. There's already a lot of saturation of restaurants in that neighborhood," Juan D. Reyes, an attorney for a resident at 55 Crosby St., which is located behind Morini, said Monday.

Locals have also complained about cooking fumes emitted by the restaurant.

"It's an odor … like Italian food," Reyes said.

White told DNAinfo.com New York after CB2 voted down the expansion on May 24 that he was aware of community concerns.

"We're being very, very thoughtful," he said. "This would bring nothing but good to the neighborhood."

Morini's case is set to be heard Feb. 4.