Decisions about locations and cuisine come easy to Mariza’s chef and owner Ian Schnoebelen, and his partner in business and life, Laurie Casebonne.

This talented couple opened Restaurant Iris on Jeannette Street in the Carrollton neighborhood in early 2006. It was small and intimate.

Really small and quite intimate. Then they wanted to make a different statement. Not with the contemporary American cuisine they were serving to rave reviews – Food & Wine Magazine awarded Schnoebelen a Best New Chef in America 2007 accolade – but in another part of New Orleans. So they moved the restaurant into the French Quarter at the Bienville House Hotel, not missing a beat, enjoying continued kudos and compliments from visitors and locals alike.

Then there was the thought they really wanted to visit Italy. And while they were in the planning stages, the opportunity for a new restaurant, and a new location, was developed, all built around their love of fresh pasta and cured meats. Oh, and the new location was well known to them. They watched the Rice Mill Lofts building being renovated since it just happened to be near their home in Bywater, which meant a shorter bike ride on some days from home to restaurant.

Not to mention that when they were in the hiring stage for the new place, they brought on some staff they had worked with at Iris, with others coming out of their regular poker game sessions.

As for the nuts and bolts of Mariza, the machine is humming smoothly. The décor is attractive in a “New Bywater” sort of way – older construction, updated to almost a modern feel, almost, and quite comfortable. Ian and Laurie have also expanded their bar to the point where eating there isn’t an afterthought. Some folks intentionally dine in that area – it’s very spacious; and to encourage that sort of behavior, there are several rows of high-boy tables away from the bar into the free-form dining room.

“We found that many of our friends like the idea of eating at the bar. And anyway, we didn’t want the bar and the restaurant to feel like two separate areas. No hard-break between the bar and the dining room,” Ian notes, “So we made the transition more gradual, which adds to the casual feel of the room.”

Ian and Laurie are rightfully famous for their emphasis on cocktails and wines by the glass. The bar scene at the still-popular Iris, and now at Mariza, is vibrant and creative with plenty of choices with something for everyone.

The Italian direction at Mariza has proven to be quite popular. The dishes coming out of the kitchen are, for the most part, not really what anyone else in town is doing. Raw vegetables and Pecorino Romano are real winners from the raw bar section of the menu, which also features red snapper crudo and yellowfin tuna carpaccio.

The meats are house-cured with a salumi of the day offering, pancetta salad, bresoala and arugula salad, and a pepperoni soup.

Ian is particularly, and rightfully, proud of his pizzas. “If you’re going to be a weekday, neighborhood restaurant, which is what we are striving for,” he says, “you have to offer a beginning of the meal dish that everyone at the table can enjoy together. Our pizzas are quite special.” And as he usually is when it comes to food, he’s right.

Do not move on to the main course until someone at the table, or several someones, order the lamb meatballs with poached duck egg – it’s outstanding.

Main courses, if you can still go in that direction, include whole fish with a fennel salad, duck leg confit, vegetable lasagna and quail and pancetta. Evidently to Ian and Laurie, “casual” doesn’t mean déclassé.

The toughest critics of all, New Orleans diners, have noted this place as an important destination already. A popular expression is that when a restaurant opens, give it six months to shake out the kinks.

“We had crowds from the time we opened our doors. We had to be ready,” Laurie notes with pride and happiness. “It proves the Bywater has arrived. No one ever says, ‘you sure are out of the way.’ Instead we’re seeing friends come from further and further away.”

The fact that Mariza is a beautiful and comfortable place, with postcard views of the city’s skyline, the Mississippi River Bridge and the river itself, doesn’t hurt. Then there’s the comfortable ambience, along with cuisine that’s simply astounding.

What isn’t to like at Mariza in Bywater? It is a complete package; it’s brand new, but it’s going to be here for a long time.

Mariza, 2900 Chartres St., 598-5700,

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