With metal-legged chairs sliding over rough-worn wooden floors, windowpanes consuming much of its vertical surfaces and an active reservations book, Il Piatto's small but roaming dining room is, typically, rambunctious. The zany acoustics are such that, through the general racket, you can hear specific conversations clear as a bell. Sometimes you're lucky enough to hear your own conversation (dining outside ensures it), but often it's just easier to eavesdrop. Like the time I happily spent the better part of an evening listening in on a group I couldn't see, neighbors rallied around several tables in the rearmost corner. The party's bond was scrawled across picket signs propped against the walls around them -- "No more new bars on Maple Street" -- though I never could have guessed it from their merry, wine-induced repartee.
Periodically Il Piatto's food is as lively, and when the elements of food and fun thusly mesh you might wonder at the dearth of local Italian restaurants that aren't strictly influenced by our prominent red-gravy Sicilian traditions. The food culture in Italy, largely dictated by natural resources, can vary by village -- guinea hen with pan gravy and pinci in walnut cream may be the specialty in one, while just kilometers down the road you'll find transcendent grilled lake fish and tuna spaghetti. Matt Yohalem, the chef who owns the original (and only other) Il Piatto in Santa Fe, N.M., aims to represent this variety with what manager Raoul Schneider once termed "regional Italian cooking." Yohalem opened Il Piatto in the former Nautical space in December, shortly after his first New Orleans restaurant venture, Belle Forche, shuttered in Faubourg Marigny.
Over three triumphant courses, a recent lunch summed up his kitchen's potential. The first involved cannelini beans stewed with spicy, dry calabrese sausage and brought to a mellow point with the aromatic essence of lemon -- and thickly breaded but still tender calamari piled on top. Beans, sausage and calamari are common to Italian and American kitchens, but this particular surf-and-turf working of the three is uncommon -- and outstanding when the calamari is hot.
For the main course, housemade pappardelle ribbons long and wide enough to tie into bows came tossed with all manners of richness: pieces and shreds of braised duck, a dark caramel-sweet sauciness, sun-dried tomatoes and a wet dollop of mascarpone cheese. How easily did these elements come together? How comfortable was Frank Sinatra behind the microphone? And, finally, there was the only order of fried tortellini I'm destined to eat. This dessert -- hot, crisp-edged, tortellini-shaped doughnuts smothered with a pudding-like chocolate sauce -- was unavailable on three subsequent visits.
Add to all this the evenhanded lunch prices ($7, $9 and $5 for each well-proportioned course, respectively), and it's self-evident why I had, for a time, an unconditional crush on Il Piatto.
But, despite a menu that's as poetic as it is ambitious, and despite Yohalem's commendable enthusiasm for fresh pasta, slam-dunks are a rarity here. For every supple ravioli there's a clunky, undercooked tortellini; for every verdant leaf of arugula bellowing with peppery zing, there's an unripe winter tomato pureed into a tongue-itching soup or spoiling an otherwise brilliant salad (and the salads can be brilliant); for every ripe Dolcetto d'Alba from the thoughtful, inexpensive Italian wine selection, there's an abrasive espresso that wouldn't pass muster at an Agip gas station along Italy's autostrade.
All told, the average meal here involves as many disappointments as exaltations. I've had supreme ravioli, the pasta resilient and forgiving whether plumped with smooth pumpkin puree or bracing gorgonzola cheese, and whether sizzled in nutty brown butter or dotted with sun-dried tomato pesto. I've also had unfortunate seafood in several forms, including rare trout (a mistake) and strong-smelling grilled salmon that killed appetites as soon as it hit the table. Ordering can be a game of roulette even once you've found a favorite dish. Slow-cooked oxtail and onions made a luscious gravy for panzarotti pasta one night; a week later the dish's predominant flavor was burnt.
Including the novel chocolate tortellini, desserts are pretty basic and pretty good. A frothy Marsala zabaglione was angelic one evening over a mound of fresh raspberries. Ordinary balsamic vinegar shouldn't be allowed near panna cotta; a dried fig compote did more to arouse its jiggle. Thick, droopy chocolate-amaretto mousse was probably over-whipped one evening, but over-whipping has its advantages; it was like eating a liquid candy bar.
Servers wearing functionally sexy uniforms (blue jeans, black shirts and white, floor-length aprons) are affable and informed enough; they know where to take malodorous salmon, and they know to keep the focaccia coming while you wait for a replacement. In fact, all the givens -- the cheerful, clanging dining room, the merciful prices, the porch and patio seating, the original and varied menu, the fresh pasta -- make it difficult to hold a grudge over frequent disappointments on the plate.
If, as a rule, Il Piatto's kitchen made good on the menu's promises, it would undoubtedly become the destination for multi-regional Italian eating, not just for its neighbors but for the entire city.