Little Italy in the Big Easy

It is the holiday season and what can a girl wish for, other than a little comfort and joy? This year I’m bypassing the cashmere sweaters, fireplace and Trans-Siberian Orchestra albums, and going straight to the source of true comfort – Italian food.

A Mano, recently opened by Rio Mar’s Chef Adolfo Garcia and Chef Josh Smith, is the newest Italian restaurant to open in the city, and features southern Italian dishes unique to the restaurant and well worth the trip. Located on Tchoupitoulas Street, the dining room is casual yet classy with a curing room off to the side, where the chefs cure their housemade mortadella and salamis. The housemade sausage is grilled to fennelly-perfection and served over eggplant caponata, a sweet and sour relish similar chutney, but heartier. The chefs have created a menu that’s bursting with small plates perfect for sharing, so you don’t have to engorge yourself, though the riccotta gnudi – four delicate crottin-shaped dumplings – with tender shitake mushrooms in melted sage butter is worth the personal trainer fees. I had Satsuma in my Prosecco, and a beautifully simple shrimp entrée with charred Satsuma, fennel, almonds and mint – the charred citrus really was the star of the show, it was so warm and flavorful, I want to char some at home and squeeze them over everything I cook. You will be hard pressed to make an entrée choice though – some folks are touting the rabbit as the best in town. The desserts aren’t to be skipped. The homemade cassata cake, with creamy cheese filling and liqueor soaked sponge cake topped with candied fruits is a welcome break from tiramisu. The envy of all ice cream cakes, a chocolate and pistachio semifreddo, deserved a kiss.

   There is something about Irene’s in the French Quarter that seems more welcoming than any restaurant in New Orleans. Perhaps it’s the fact that Irene herself opens the door for you; that she knows the correct amount of lighting to create an ambiance. She guides you to the bustling piano lounge, where even on a Tuesday night you might have to wait 30 minutes for a table. Even so, with martini in hand and endless conversation, you’ll find the time slipping by. Irene’s dishes up, as one friend calls it, New Orleans Italian, which means you can indulge in the fresh fish meuniere almondine or go for the gold with the veal cannelloni, a baked pasta as tender and cheesy as your first kiss.

The menu is brief, relying on house specialties like the caprese salad, Oysters Irene – baked with pancetta and pecorino – and a crab gratin on the lighter side. The Black Angus steak is one of the best-cooked steaks in town: very tender and well seasoned, though it no doubt gets overlooked among the other entrées. The roasted rosemary chicken wins the popularity contest. The fennel-flavored Italian fish stew – cioppino – is the sassy best friend. One night I was enjoying my dinner when the door opened and Lenny Kravitz walked in, along with Sidney Torres. Apparently, this isn’t an unusual sight to behold. On the wall behind us was already a picture of the sassy best friends. I finished my coffee and Frangelica and a gluttonous chocolate hazlenut tort, and left before the paparazzi showed up.

If you’re heading to City Park to check out the lights, there’s no better stop to make than the historic Angelo Brocato’s ice cream shop on Carrollton Avenue. When the weather outside is frightful, like hot enough to sunbathe, Brocato’s gelatos, lemon ice and spumoni will suffice; but if it’s chilly, go for a toasty espresso and a homemade cannoli. The Brocatos have been making cannolis in New Orleans since 1905, so you know they’re amazing. They also have a kid-friendly cassata cake with less candied fruit, as I suspect the little ones might detest, but a delectable marzipan shell.

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