Now That's Regional Italian!

New Orleans, LA –

The normal New Orleanian probably eats more traditional German food at Oktorberfest celebrations than any other time of year, and St. Patrick's Day might be the only time the masses really clamor for suppers of corned beef and cabbage. Pride in Italian traditions swells this time year, around St. Joseph's Day, the de facto Italian-American heritage holiday, so you might expect consumption of Italian food to rise too. The only problem, is that I don't think this is possible in New Orleans.

The Italian culinary influence here is so deep, strong and ubiquitous that it's hard to imagine modern New Orleans eating without it. By the 1970s, the pioneering local restaurant critic Richard Collin, recently deceased, called Italian cooking one of the two dominant cuisines in New Orleans, second only to Creole. He could have been more specific and called it the imported cooking traditions of Sicily. That's the ancestral homeland of so many of the families that made New Orleans home a century ago, and that's the style that grafted itself so successfully to the city's food identity.

What this all means is that the local palate is as comfortable parsing the finer points of red sauce, meatballs and paneed veal cutlets as it is gumbo and red beans, and they often eat from both the Creole and the Italian sides of the New Orleans culinary family tree in the same sitting.

But things are changing and these days eating Italian can mean something quite different thanks to a clutch of local restaurants mining the rich regional veins of the cuisine. There is a surprising range of these types of restaurants once you start looking. Ristorante Da Piero in Kenner specializes in cooking from the Romagna region of northern Italy. One centerpiece here is pasta with the colorful name strozzapretti, or priest choker. In the French Quarter, the tiny caf Italian Barrel zeroes in on other northern Italian traditions, this time from the Verona region, with lots of cured meats and vegetable-filled ravioli. In the Warehouse District, Leonardo Trattoria showcases what Sicilian cooking looks like without its New Orleans accent in dishes like swordfish carpaccio and the fried rice cakes known as arancini. Meanwhile, Del Porto Restaurant in Covington has made its name with Tuscan-inspired dishes using seasonal local staples.

This trend toward regional Italian cooking has been simmering for a while, but it got a high-profile boost when two new restaurants from well-known local chefs opened within weeks of each other last fall. Chef John Besh debuted his Domenica in the revived Roosevelt Hotel while not far away in the Warehouse District chef Adolfo Garcia opened the doors to a Mano. These are each Italian restaurants where you're more likely to find octopus than calamari on the appetizer list, and where tagliatelle will anchor an entr e rather than spaghetti or penne.

All this can come across as refreshing and exciting, even though there's really nothing novel about it. By digging deeper in the vast and varied cooking traditions of the Old Country, these places are making a return to an old-fashioned, if not ancient, approach to Italian cooking that can still seem exotic because we're just not familiar with it here. So as the city burnishes its Italian-American heritage this year, it turns out there's a lot more on the table to celebrate and discover.

Del Porto Restaurant
501 East Boston St., Covington, 985-875-1006

123 Baronne St., New Orleans, 504-648-6020

Leonardo Trattoria
709 Saint Charles Ave., New Orleans, 504-558-8986

a Mano
870 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, 504-208-9280

The Italian Barrel
430 Barracks St., New Orleans, 504-569-0198

Ristorante Da Piero
401 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 504-469-8585