Nestled in the lower French Quarter, Maximo's Italian Grill (1117 Decatur St., 586-8883; www.maximosgrill.com) is a hidden gem. Since reopening in 2008, the restaurant has delighted in-the-know locals and fortunate tourists, maintaining its tradition of tasty cuisine in a vibrant atmosphere.
"We've got a very happy relationship with the crew [and] with our customer base, we're just trying to get that back to where it was," executive chef Thomas Woods says, referring to the restaurant's closure after Hurricane Katrina. "We're trying to get that family feeling back again." Woods was sous chef at Maximo's before Katrina and took over the executive chef role shortly after reopening. Along the way he perfected the restaurant's offerings of northern Italian favorites, including veal gnocchi, duck pappardelle, and what he calls the "champion" of the menu, osso buco.
Last month, Woods competed in the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, where his Thai mango chili-glazed shrimp with Thai basil sticks and Asian-style cucumber salad were well received.
Some people have raised concerns about the safety of Louisiana seafood following the Gulf oil disaster, but general manager Kristen Carimi says the staff is keeping a close eye on the situation. "We have been in constant contact with our seafood distributors, and they do not seem concerned at this time," she says. "The main thing being affected is oysters, and we don't have oysters on the menu."
Diners can sample from an ever-shifting menu of nightly specials, which includes country-braised pheasant paired with risotto. Several seats available in front of the open kitchen allow customers to watch Woods and his staff work their magic.
"I'm a ham back there; I give a show," Woods says. "I'll answer questions, teach people techniques."
Regulars at the restaurant get to rub elbows with tattooed hipsters and out-of-towners, because nightly promotions draw in different crowds. Wednesday's half-off bar night is a favorite with the young professional set, Carimi says, and a live music night is in the works.
The restaurant's snug quarters and its convivial mood make for an electric dining experience for patrons and employees alike.
"I love this restaurant," Carimi says. "I love how everyone here has so much heart. It's definitely a French Quarter thing."