If New Orleans was not specifically pining for a modern coastal Italian dining experience in a refurbished industrial space at the border of the Marigny and Bywater, well, you wouldn't know it by the scene at Mariza on any given night.
Mariza’s dining room glows at candlelight wattage but seems to pulse with its own energy. People are everywhere — at high top tables and long communal tables, framed by windows and roaring away in a brick-and-chandelier back room. The busy open kitchen melds with the bar, where one lady hoists a Negroni cocktail, the bartender pulls long Sicilian wine bottles from ice baths, a cook molds goat cheese ricotta over bruschetta and a guy slurps oysters at the raw bar.
Mariza’s cooking is very far from Creole Italian comfort food we all know so well, but this new restaurant arrived with plenty of its own New Orleans bona fides just the same. Chef Ian Schnoebelen and his wife Laurie Casebonne are local restaurant industry veterans who together pulled off one of the classic post-Katrina carpe diem career moves.
Within a few weeks of the storm, when most of us were just beginning to pick up the pieces, they began piecing together a plan to open their own first restaurant, which they named Iris. It was a bold move for first-time restaurateurs at that very early stage of the Katrina recovery, but Iris proved to be a good bet. Within a year Food+Wine Magazine named Schnoebelen one of the nation's top new chefs. Today Iris has a much larger home in the French Quarter, where things are rolling still.
Mariza opened early this year. It’s quite different from Iris — it’s more casual and cheaper. But you can still recognize Schnoebelen’s approach, which emphasizes big, elemental flavors tailored by a restrained hand. For instance, a quail is split, wrapped in pancetta, the Italian bacon, and grilled until dark lines dig in and smoky melts into crispy. The rib eye is unusually lean but still full-flavored and served Tuscan-style over a bed of greens. Raw snapper is served like sashimi dressed with olive oil and sea salt. This is Italian crudo, and not surprisingly it dazzles the palate. What is surprising is how the plain-sounding raw vegetable salad proves just as memorable thanks to its balance, beauty and bountiful freshness.
Platters of cured meats and cheese are pervasive fixtures across the dining scene now, but at Mariza they seem indispensable. Pay attention to the specials rotating through them. I know I’ll always be looking for a return of the cured lamb leg, which is sliced like prosciutto and strewn over herbs and hunks of roasted beets.
There’s pizza and pasta, and while I liked some dishes better than others I found the only real mistake you can really make at Mariza is by parking in the lot right outside its door. It looks inviting but it’s off limits and for some mysterious reason a towing policy is enforced with astonishing vigor.
Mariza doesn’t take reservations, but the potential for chaos at this busy place is smartly eased by the maître d'. More than just greet-and-seat, he orchestrates the room and that speaks to another dynamic behind Mariza’s early success. This is a casual restaurant that still takes hospitality seriously.
2900 Chartres St., (504) 598-5700; www.marizaneworleans.com