Italian cuisine has always played an outsized role in the New Orleans restaurant landscape.
Sicilian immigrants helped shape the mercantile history of the French Quarter in the late 19th century, contributing definitive local dishes like the Muffuletta as well as the distinctive Creole Italian fare that many New Orleanians grew up with. Homegrown distributors such as Progresso Foods emerged from this time and continue to supply local restaurants to this day. Post-Katrina New Orleans saw a next generation of new Italian restaurants emerge, offering a sharp regional focus along with specialties like Neapolitan-style pizza. Since then the scene has mellowed, leaving behind an Italian restaurant landscape that offers a far broader spectrum of influence than that which we grew up with.
One of the more intriguing examples of this can be found at Avo on Magazine Street. For the past five years, chef and co-owner Nick Lama has been quietly turning out some of the most accomplished Italian cuisine in town. Along the way were some hard decisions, as he intentionally moved away from the indoor/outdoor patio model that largely defined the space when the existing retractable gear began to wear out. “The courtyard was beautiful, but it made it tough to run the business because you couldn’t always use the seats,” Lama said. In the fall of 2019 the patio was permanently enclosed and the resulting sleek, contemporary dining room set a new tone.
Then along came the coronavirus, which caused him to temporarily shut down and later reopen with a menu geared more toward takeout-friendly options and comfort foods. Restrictions may have eased, but the comfort fare element still remains. Lama makes all his own pasta in-house, which serves as a cornerstone of many of his dishes. “I like to do specific regional fare like pastas and match them with complementary sauces and the best ingredients we can source locally,” Lama explained. “We pair them with dishes from specific regions such as Emilia Romagna.”
Recommended dishes include his chili glazed octopus. Cooked sous-vide and finished on the grill with an Aleppo and Calabrian chili glaze prior to serving, the fork-tender octopus makes a great counterpoint to the pastas that will likely follow. Another intriguing appetizer is his fried eggplant meatballs, served with whipped ricotta, basil and cherry tomatoes – a flavorful combo that also happens to be meatless.
Regarding pasta, a recent ravioli featured an umami-rich filling of portobello mushroom and sharp fontina and pecorino cheeses topped with a pesto brightened with lemon juice and peppery arugula. Another comforting dish of pappardelle is tossed with pork ragu which hits all the right notes. If you want to step away from the carbs, consider his grilled redfish with corn, tomato and kale pesto.
The wine list, at least at the time of writing, is brief but well-curated and exclusively Italian. The craft cocktails strike a more contemporary tone. The dessert list was limited to cannoli but look for that to be expanded as occupancy restrictions ease.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Prior to opening Avo with his wife Melissa in 2015, chef and co-owner Nick Lama honed his skills as the Chef de Cuisine at the fine dining fixture Gautreau’s in Uptown. A New Orleans native and third-generation Sicilian, Lama then turned his attention to the food closest to his heart. The resulting Italian menu shines with its contemporary approach to regional Italian cuisine. The coronavirus outbreak has further pushed the menu into an embrace of comfort food, which plays well with his in-house pasta program.
While not strictly Italian, Paladar 511 in the Marginy puts an emphasis on homemade pastas and regional ingredients served up with a contemporary twist. Like Avo, it offers fine dining cred in a space tailored more toward casual get-togethers than fancy occasions.
Avo, 5908 Magazine St., Uptown, 509-6550, D Tues-Sat., Restaurantavo.com