Some of the best food in the world is simple. That’s a lesson I’ve learned over 30 years or so of paying attention to food and cooking. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to produce good food, even with the finest ingredients. What it means is that it doesn’t take baroque preparations or complicated techniques to produce a great result on the plate.
There’s probably no better example of this than traditional Italian cuisine. Exceptional ingredients, locally sourced and treated with respect: This is a recipe for good eating, my friends. We have long been fortunate in New Orleans to have a distinct variety of Italian-American cooking. Largely the result of Sicilian immigrants who adapted their native cuisine to our climate and the abundance of seafood from our waters, it’s unlike any “Italian” food in the country. It’s a blessing, but it’s not necessarily representative of what food and cooking are like in Italy. This is not a criticism; Cajun cooking is far removed from its French and Canadian roots, but I hope nobody is complaining.
Italy has a long tradition of ornate cuisine –– the haute cuisine of France owes a great deal to the kitchens of the Medicis in medieval Italy –– but the most common cooking in Italy is straightforward, allowing seasonal ingredients to speak for themselves. At A Mano, Domenica and Del Porto, the cooking is generally direct, seasonal and authentically Italian, even if the folks in the kitchen aren’t. A Mano and Domenica are relative latecomers to this trend locally; Del Porto has been at it since 2002.
Chefs Torre and David Solazzo opened the restaurant in a small space on New Hampshire Street in Covington, but they soon outgrew the location and a few years ago moved to a more comfortable location at 501 E. Boston St. The restaurant has a single L-shaped dining room that wraps around a bar and the enclosed kitchen. Large windows on the exterior walls look out onto East Boston and North Columbia streets. There are tables outside, but this time of year you’d have to be pretty quirky to want to brave the heat.
The Solazzos met while working at San Francisco’s celebrated Italian restaurant Tra Vigne, and they have had great success with Del Porto. They serve food “inspired by Tuscany,” with an emphasis on local ingredients, and there’s not a lot of fussy food on the menu.
At a recent lunch, I started with a Painted Hills beef carpaccio. It was a great example of the dish: Meltingly tender beef covered the plate in a razor-thin layer, topped with arugula simply dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, garnished with shaved parmesan slices and accented with a subtle truffled crème fraîche. The dish was topped with paper-thin crisps of olive oil-laced bread. Carpaccio is almost a cliché, but when it’s done right, you understand why it’s achieved that status. This was done right.
To the extent I am notorious for anything, it is my dislike of truffle oil and Alan Richman. But as I’ve pointed out before, when used with a light hand, anything can be exceptional, and in this case there was such a subtle hint of truffle in the dish that even I could not complain. There was no Alan Richman in the dish that I could detect –– and I’m pretty sure I could detect the odor of ass, even with congested sinuses. But I digress.
The menu is divided into antipasti, insalate, primi and secondi, with additional sections devoted to a pizza of the day and, at lunch, panini. The antipasti include a daily soup; white bean and artichoke purée with caper berries, kalamata olives and extra virgin olive oil; and a selection of cured meats, cheeses, grilled seasonal vegetables and fruit that can be ordered in a small or large portion.
There’s the mandatory mixed greens salad with shaved onions and a balsamic vinaigrette; a panéed chicken breast served over an arugula salad with Pecorino Romano and a lemon vinaigrette; and a salad of frisée, baby spinach, crispy potatoes, a poached yard-egg and a warm pancetta vinaigrette that is an Italian take on the French bistro classic.
My next course, under the primi section, was spaghettini with littleneck clams, white wine and herbs. Again, it was very simply presented, very simply prepared and damn near perfect. The fresh pasta was perfectly cooked, as were the clams. There wasn’t a great deal more to the dish: A bit of broth that had as its base the liquor from the clams, a little citrus, a few herbs and a little chile pepper combined in a way that had me sopping the broth from the bottom of the bowl with bread after I’d finished. The notes I took contemporaneously sum it up: “very direct, very clean, very good.”
Other primi include house-made cavatelli with fresh ricotta, basil and marinara sauce; a fennel sausage risotto with Swiss chard, cavolo nero, pine nuts and aged Montasio cheese; and house-made tagliatele with mushrooms and truffled mushroom jus.
The pizza changes daily, and you can choose from panini such as the house-made Italian sausage patty with provolone cheese, peppers and onions; a grilled vegetable panini with smoked mozzarella and garlic aioli; and a crispy shrimp panini with pickled zucchini, red onion, lettuce, garlic aoili and smoky ketchup, all served on house-made focaccia.
Secondi on the lunch menu include a fish of the day, a seafood stew (brodetto) of littleneck clams, mussels, Gulf shrimp and fish in a tomato-fennel broth; a grilled New York strip with smashed, fried new potatoes, wilted arugula, and a black pepper-Parmigiano aioli; and garlic chicken over creamy buckwheat polenta with local spinach and a thyme jus.
Desserts on the menu include standards such as tiramisu, assorted gelato and sorbets and a few items that suggest some more imagination. For example, Cookies and Cream is house-made mascarpone-and-honey gelato, Ponchatoula strawberry gelato and dark chocolate gelato with chocolate chip, Italian wedding, zaletti, biscotti and shortbread cookies. The pistachio-lemon cake with white chocolate-cream cheese icing also looked pretty delicious.
You can contact Del Porto at 985/875-1006. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Friday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.