Special things often come in small packages. This is certainly the case at a couple of new spots brightening up the local dining scene. Combining cozy ambiance with jewel-box proportions, these counter-service establishments help to both upgrade and expand some niche
food options.

Piccola Gelateria on Freret Street is serving up what many consider to be the best gelato in New Orleans, and arguments can be made for a far larger scope. A labor of love by husband and wife team Ria and Ross Turnbull, Piccola was born of a desire to open a gelato shop inspired by those found in Bologna, Italy, where the pair spent time over the course of their professional travels.

To make this dream a reality, the Turnbulls drew upon their years of experience in the hospitality industry. For Ross, it was his 35 years spent as a chef in two- and three-Michelin star restaurants across Europe. When a hotel group sent Ross to work in New Orleans, he and Ria fell for the city and the pair decided to stay. “New Orleans is just a very European city,” Ross says. “We liked the feel and the flavor of it. We had always talked about doing our own thing. So, one day we decided to go ahead and
just do it.”

The attention to detail in the shop’s interior is the first thing to strike visitors, with its oak flooring that carries over through the custom furniture and up the wall on the dining side. The abundance of wood, combined with the earthy tones of the plaster walls, adds warmth to the space. The beautiful custom equipment housing the gelato case and the coffee station featuring a La Marzocco espresso machine, which Ross uses to pull shots using small-batch beans custom roasted by a proprietary supplier, grabs attention. “Ria designed the shop,” Ross says. “I picked out the equipment, but she’s the one who made it look so nice.”

With a background in fine dining, why focus on Bolognese gelato? For Ross the answer is simple. “Gelato is something that Ria and I both loved and Bologna is basically the center of gelato in Italy,” he explains. Gelato and ice cream aren’t synonymous, he’s quick to point out. Gelato features about half the calories of ice cream, which means half the sugar and half the fat, making it a less guilty indulgence. In addition, a much smaller volume of air is incorporated into the mix, resulting in a denser product, which explains the relative richness of the concoction. What is more, gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream – usually around 10 degrees Fahrenheit versus the zero to 5 degrees of ice cream. The warmer temperature opens up the flavor, since cold temperatures dull taste. The high-end Pozzetti display case by Italian manufacturer IFI holds the gelato in deeper pots than the more typical shallow pans, keeping the temperature constant and exposing less of its surface to air. “The quality of the product speaks for itself,” Ross says. “This is what was impressed upon me when I was an apprentice.” Taste it and you will see what he’s talking about.

Start with the pistachio – the richness and intensity will blow you away. Bronte pistachio paste is used as the base while Ross roasts and hand-grinds whole DOP pistachios and folds them into the mix to layer and amplify the flavor. Also recommended are the chocolate options – he only uses Valhrona chocolate. Look for the dark 70 percent if he has it. And for kids, the Mr. Cookie flavor is a big hit.

Along with gelato, traditional crêpes (both savory and sweet) are served, as well as piadina, a sandwich made from a type of Italian flatbread. While limited in selection, the offerings are carefully considered and (like the gelato) reflect serious respect for the choice of the ingredients used.

Poke has finally arrived in New Orleans. At its roots, it’s a Hawaiian meal of raw fish, but over on the West Coast the dish has morphed into a food trend that melds salad and sushi elements into a fresh, casual and healthy dining option. Owned by a group of partners and spearheaded by Joe Reiss and his sister Cecile Hardy Tanguis, Poke Loa occupies the former Jamba Juice space at the corner of Magazine Street and Louisiana Avenue.

The sleek, contemporary space is a counter-service operation and offers limited bar seating, as well as a small collection of tables. Diners build their own Poke Bowl by going through a checklist of options. You pick your type of rice or salad, your protein, your sauce and your toppings. Additional garnishes are offered as well. Consider the yellowtail over white rice with citrusy Ponzu sauce, orange tobiko and pickled ginger. Mixing and matching is part of the fun, but composed bowls are available as well. The Tuna Poke bowl pairs baby cucumbers, sweet onions, sesame seeds and lemon miso aioli. Vegetarian options built on a foundation of tofu are offered as well.

French Truck

Geoffrey Meeker’s French Truck Coffee has established a strong local presence and has even expanded out of state. But there’s something special about the original location at 1200 Magazine St., basically a coffee counter with a glass wall offering views into the roasting floor. The staff is eminently knowledgeable and, what’s more, clearly has access to the first pick of freshly roasted beans. The vanilla-bean infused iced coffee is a winner as well.

Niche Noshes

Piccola Gelateria
4525 Freret St., #103
(954) 618-8141
Breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesdays-Sundays

Poke Loa
3341 Magazine St.
Lunch and dinner daily