RATING |

This review originally published on April 6, 2003.

The Moro blood orange is a sultry fruit with purple flesh that conjures the intensity of the Sicilian sun. It's a juicy burst of sweet, tart and bitter. The blood orange is sexy. No wonder it's one of the hottest flavors around.

Cutting-edge Mediterranean fruit may not be the image most people associate with straitlaced Wilmington, whose corporate-driven dining scene has been in snooze mode since the arrival of the exciting Restaurant 821 almost four years ago. But this town now has a new star as striking as its namesake: Moro.

With its stunning decor, talented young chef-owner Michael DiBianca, and top-notch wine cellar, this five-month-old gem is one of the best restaurants to open in our region in the last year.

Set on a tree-lined block in the Trolley Square neighborhood, Moro's jaunty dark-brick, copper and glass facade peeks out from between its unassuming rowhouse neighbors with a contemporary swagger. It took nearly six months for Philadelphia-based DAS Architects to transform what had been the old Silk Purse and Sow's Ear restaurants, but the firm succeeded in creating a space of warmth and high style.

The two-story building is parceled into a series of intimate dining rooms rich with patterned fabrics in shades of burgundy, clay and spice. Cozy circular wooden booths with textured-glass partitions are illuminated by lustrous Italian lights.

The ambience is matched by the vibrance of DiBianca's cooking. The New American menu, which changes weekly, brings far-flung ideas together in a collage of powerful flavors, great ingredients, and an element of surprise. And yes, fruit is a recurring theme.

It's wonderful enough to savor a bowl of perfectly steamed littleneck clams cradling tiny cubes of chewy soppresatta sausage. But add the heat of a roasted jalapeno wine broth and unexpected, quenching bursts of sweet plum, and you have an epiphany on the half shell.

Speaking of which, DiBianca also has his way with oysters. He presented them in a trio of preparations: topped with blood orange aspic and fried basil leaves; dolloped with a lively tomato salsa; and deep-fried, touched with lavender honey, and nestled with a cool slice of grapefruit. The last of the three was a startling combination that washed across the tongue in waves of sweet, sour and salty sea, the cold citrus warming as it mingled with the hot oyster.

DiBianca is a Flemington native and Culinary Institute of America graduate who has cooked at Restaurant 821 since it opened and, before that, at the Ajax Tavern in Aspen, Colo. At only 26, he has virtually every trendy culinary flourish in his quiver, be it fried herbs, three-way "studies," or his unorthodox use of fruit and vanilla.

During one of my visits, his penchant for offbeat embellishment got the best of him, overwhelming an onion-crusted, vanilla-sauced red snapper with so much sweetness that it tasted more like a bonbon than a fish. But more often than not, DiBianca cooks far beyond his years with an intelligent creativity that used ingredients with real effect rather than affectation.

Tender braids of butter-braised lobster arrived over house-made puff pastry and a fan of poached fennel. Seared foie gras took a turn for the savory - rather than the more common sweet - in a toasted brioche "club" with duck prosciutto, roasted tomatoes and basil pesto.

Grilled fresh prawns found a tropical counterpoint in minted mango salad. A wild mushroom tart was enriched with melted Brie.

DiBianca also showed a deft appreciation of cheese in one evening's "study," which brought pairings of shaved Umbriaco with a silken curl of prosciutto and lemon oil; aged goat cheese with port-soaked cherries and balsamic-roasted pears; and warm Brie alongside a demitasse of frozen balsamic granita.

Though the kitchen roams wide, it has a strong Mediterranean thrust. The meat in the awesome duck confit salad is patiently salt-cured and slow-cooked to chewy, crunchy threads. It's then tossed with greens sparked by a lively elixir of ruby port and Meyer lemons that cuts through the earthy duck.

If Moro has a weakness, it is the service, though not for lack of professionalism. The staff seemed almost too slick: rushing our meals, acting a bit pompous, and constantly pushing diners toward more expensive wines.

There are several excellent bottles for around $30, as well as good wines by the glass. But given Moro's tremendous wine cellar and refreshingly fair prices, it just might be worth spending a little more.

In the upstairs dining room, glass walls reveal only part of the 5,000-bottle cellar. It is an amazing selection for a new restaurant, with 500 labels, including coveted California vintages. Most are priced at a fraction of what they'd be in Pennsylvania.

DiBianca's cooking deserves a great bottle of wine. A lush chardonnay from California's Mer Soleil ($56) had tropical notes and a long, ringing finish that perfectly matched such exotic seafood flavors as the seared escolar with roasted fingerling potatoes and tarragon-amaretto butter, or the zesty, lemon-oil-splashed tuna with fresh avocado salad and roasted-onion risotto.

Earthier reds, such as the Toasted Head meritage from Napa Valley ($9 a glass) and an Oregon pinot noir from Archery Summit ($60 a bottle), did justice to the lustier meat entrees. Braised lamb shanks with balsamic-roasted tomatoes and prunes over Parmesan grits. Crisp-skinned duck breast over lentils. Perfectly seared filet mignon over Stilton-whipped potatoes and peppercorn-sparked demiglace. Luxurious veal tenderloin topped with foie gras and a truffle-scented veal reduction.

Good pastry chefs are rare in our region, even at established restaurants. But Moro has made a sweet start with Nena Eckenroth, last at Simon Pearce on the Brandywine in West Chester.

Her buttermilk panna cotta, a thick, tangy custard topped with sublime caramelized pineapple and served in a margarita glass, is addictive.

Other desserts revealed clever twists on some classics: mini creme brulees infused with fresh mint or potent bourbon; molten chocolate cake elevated by chantilly cream gently kissed with coconut; excellent Key lime pie with a little gingersnap in the crust; and a divine mini apple pie whose fruit had a whiff of rosemary.

Ironically, Eckenroth's only disappointment was a slightly dull frozen souffle flavored with . . . blood orange. But even that couldn't cool the heat of excitement that sprang from our meals at Moro.