Much of the Italian fare offered in New Orleans has been interpreted through a regional lens; typically it’s southern Italian that draws upon local ingredients such as fresh blue crab, oysters and gulf fish. Some places, such as Ristorante Da Piero in Kenner, distinguish themselves by an emphasis on Northern Italian cuisine. Others, including Irene’s Cuisine in the French Quarter, become local favorites in part due to their idiosyncratic personalities and quirky menus. Either way, Italian destinations in New Orleans have a flavor all their own.
The persona of Irene’s Cuisine is due in part to its snug feel and convivial waits. Lace curtains frame the windows of the kitschy interior and a catalog of photographs chronicling French Quarter characters and celebrities hang on the walls. The short menu is eclectic as well, grounded in southern Italian but also serving up regional specialties along with a smattering of Provençal dishes. Super-friendly staff and reasonable prices (especially for the French Quarter) win over diners as well.
First to the table is a complimentary round of bruschetta, followed by a basket of warm, toasted sesame seed bread. If you want to stick with straight-up Italian, for appetizers try the Ricotta and Spinach Ravioli, stuffed with mild ricotta and sharp Parmigianino cheese. If you want something regional, try the Oysters Irene, baked on the half-shell with a scattering of diced tomato, Romano cheese and crisp shards of bacon. If you want something decadent, I’d recommend the Crabmeat Gratin, a silky blend of lump crabmeat and multiple cheeses, baked in a tiny earthenware crock. The texture is lightened by lobster stock and a bit of cream.
For entrées, the Cannelloni Al Forno comes filled with veal and pork rolled in roasted eggplant, the whole then laid atop a bed of bright marinara sauce and smothered in a snow-white besciamella sauce. Garnished with a single large basil leaf, the presentation is attractive and the dish is tasty. The Veal Marsala is nice as well, with thin medallions of veal smothered in mushrooms and a Marsala sauce, served alongside a haystack of French-fried julienned sweet potatoes and asparagus. The Fish of the Day can be prepared in a number of ways, including a regional Meunière Amandine or as part of an Old World-style Cioppino stew.
Desserts include a rich Tiramisu and, interestingly, individual Baked Alaska. This is the kind of offbeat touch that fans of Irene’s love. Irene’s is a dinner-only destination, and guests wishing to bypass the wait can try stopping by on weekday evenings when tables are in less demand.
On the other side of the French Quarter, Bacco serves up a menu based more upon Northern Italian cuisine, albeit one that’s regionally informed as well. The pasta, made in-house, is a good place to start. The pasta for the Truffle Fettuccine is tossed in a simple cream and cheese sauce and is finished with shavings of black truffle and Parmesan cheese. Also good is the Carpaccio, with thin slices that span the width of the plate and are topped with a lightly dressed mound of arugula. Shaved Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of truffle oil season the dish, along with some simple reinforcement from cracked pepper and sea salt.
For entrées, I really enjoyed their Lobster Ravioli, tiny throw-pillows stuffed with a blend of lobster and shrimp tossed in a champagne-butter sauce and finished with a garnish of both black and red caviars. The champagne sauce enlivens the dish, which might otherwise veer to the heavy side, with sweetness and pop. The Crabmeat Pappardelle is another good pasta choice – hunks of crabmeat tossed in a leek and cream sauce with roasted tomatoes. If you’re craving something with more of a marinara twist, try the Roasted Chicken with Stracci, which comes in a tomato basil sauce.
For desserts, diners can go with the traditional Tiramisu or opt for a monstrously sized Mr. Ralph’s Ice Cream Sandwich – layers of chocolate cake wedged around a dreamsicle-flavored ice cream, finished with chocolate sauce. It is enough for two people, or even three.
Ristorante Da Piero is tucked away near the levee in Kenner’s Rivertown, where Williams Boulevard dwindles to little more than a two-lane main street. The area’s small town feel is reflected in the restaurant, whose cottage-like interior is filigreed with bed and breakfast-style flourishes. The quaintness is offset by a large, comfortable outside patio, which (weather-permitting) makes for an alternate dining room.
The predominate Italian influence here is Northern, with homemade pasta providing the canvas for an array of comfort foods. Try the Tortelloni Romagnoli: pasta stuffed with a blend of ricotta and spinach over which is ladled a tasty, meat-studded Bolognese sauce.
The Tagliatelle alla Romagnola is a simpler dish: pasta tossed with a tomato and cream sauce enhanced with salty Speck ham and sweet peas. For something a bit more assertive, the Gnocchi con Gorgonzola gets some bite from its creamy blue cheese sauce.
The Carpaccio appetizer is a nice way to start, with thinly sliced beef tenderloin heaped with fresh arugula and sliced mushrooms and wide shavings of sharp Reggiano cheese. It gets some acidity from lemon juice, though I found mine needed a splash of tableside vinegar to brighten it a bit more. The Gallo salad is interesting as well, with julienned Prosciutto lacquered with a balsamic reduction on a bed of fresh spinach.
The Srozzapreti Crudita o Panna e Speck is another good dish, with the signature pasta tossed in a cream sauce along with Speck ham, tomatoes and arugula. The non-pasta dinner items include some local touches like alligator sausage, duck breast and roasted rabbit as well. Prices are pretty reasonable, especially for the lunch menu.