With the opening of the central/southern Italian trattoria a Mano in November, chef Adolfo Garcia has increased his portfolio to partnership in three holdings, rounded out by Rio Mar and La Boca. And while the cuisines served at each are disparate (Italian, Spanish and Argentine, respectively), they are all united by Garcia’s essential philosophy:
unadulterated, traditional fare. Garcia doesn’t go for fusion or mash-ups; he is interested in roots cooking.
The beginnings of A Mano – Italian for “by hand” – started with a meeting of the minds between Garcia and his chef/partner Joshua Smith. “Josh started working with me at Rio Mar and we got to talking about it there,” Garcia says. “Italian food is his passion. Traditional cooking is mine. I used to have to tell him, ‘Quit cooking Italian – this is a Spanish restaurant!’ Point is, he got a lot of his inspiration from Italy; that was his passion.”
Garcia noted Smith’s love of authentic Italian and also saw a niche to be filled in a city where Italian fare is predominately cross-pollinated with Creole influence. “The opportunity arose and I asked, ‘Are you ready?’ and Josh said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready,’” Garcia says. “I kind of stacked the deck for him and brought in a lot of my best guys from Rio Mar, and said, OK tear it up.”
A Mano’s dining room manages to be both airy and subdued at the same time. An interior window allows guests to peer into the curing room, where enticing cuts of pork and salumi hang. At a recent meal, I started with the Affetati Misti, an assorted cured meat plate. The duck breast, with its burgundy-red flesh and buttery band of fat, was a standout, along with the capicola, which is actually a cooked salumi. At press time a Mano offered five different salumi, two of them cooked and three of them hung. Garcia stresses that more cured goodness is coming down the pipe.
The Insalata di Mare, a starter salad of octopus, shrimp, celery, potatoes and squid, had a strong savory undercurrent. I half-expected a lot of acidity going into the dish, but was surprised by its umami-esque nature, which grounded the dish. Another starter of pan-fried mozzarella sandwiches got its sharpness and edge from an anchovy and caper paste smeared atop.
The relatively short but well-chosen wine menu is exclusively Italian. Garcia says customer response has been strong.
“I kind of feared we’d be having guys coming in and saying, ‘What do you mean, you don’t have spaghetti and meatballs?’ but it hasn’t gone that way. People have been really taking to the authenticity. And the prices; we keep the points low. We’ve also have a ton of repeat business already.”
Garcia’s presence in the Warehouse District was largely established by Rio Mar, his Spanish seafood destination on South Peters Street. Rio Mar was way ahead of the curve in offering up tapas and other small plates, a trend which has since exploded both here and nationwide. More than anything else, though, it distinguishes itself by serving up seafood that’s refreshingly different from our prevailing regional styles. In a nutshell, you can get Trout Almondine just about anywhere in New Orleans. But there is only one place you can get Escabeche, and that’s Rio Mar.
Try the Bacalaitos, akin to Portuguese hush puppies but with the inclusion of rehydrated salt cod. They are a fantastically addictive snack food, reminding me of Takoyaki, a Japanese street food favorite that uses octopus and a lighter batter. Garlic lovers will enjoy the Shrimp “al Ajillo,” and oyster lovers will enjoy the Baked Oysters Riomar, akin to an oyster dressing. More substantial offerings include the Jamon with Manchego cheese pressed sandwich, along with the Patatas Alioli a la Catalan – basically potato wedges dusted with paprika and served with a garlicky sauce. As far as cold dishes, the lemony Boquerones – marinated anchovy fillets – are nice, as is the cheese and quince paste plate. The Ceviche in its myriad styles is not to be missed. I also like to fit in Garcia’s excellent Tres Leches for dessert if I have room. Rio Mar has added a room for private parties and offers tapas every weekday for lunch.
La Boca has become my default steakhouse, and in speaking with friends I’ve learned I’m not alone – those that have been there swear by the cuts served at this Argentine destination. Also, the garlicky cone of fries offered as a side dish here are among the best in the city. During a recent meal, instead of the usual Hearts of Palm salad (I feel compelled to order something light to offset the inevitable influx of steak and, possibly, Provoleta, which is essentially a skillet of molten cheese scented with oregano and olive oil), I ordered the special salad, an Arugula version done up in a Satsuma vinaigrette. For steak, I love the Vacio, a paprika-dusted flank steak marinated in pineapple juice, resulting in a caramelized exterior when it hits the grill. My wife swears by the Entrana Fina con La Piel, as outside skirt steak with the skin still on. What if you don’t feel like steak? The Noqui – potato pasta in cream sauce – are highly recommended. As La Boca is Argentine, the menu is rounded out by several pasta items; Argentina shares a powerful culinary bond with Italy. This relationship is reflected in the interesting wine list as well. Keep La Boca in mind for late night dining on weekends, as it’s open until midnight Thursday through Saturday.