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Now That's Italian! 

Chef-restaurateur Matt Yohalem has brought the varied tastes of Italy Uptown in his new Il Piatto Cucina Italiana (7708 Maple St., 861-0002), an upscale but casual restaurant that presents cuisine and wine from the different regions of Italy.

Yohalem, who owns an Il Piatto in New Mexico and also owned the now-closed Belle Forche in New Orleans, says his new restaurant fills what was a void in Uptown culinary offerings.

"I opened on Maple Street because I like Uptown and there aren't a lot of Italian restaurants there," he says. "There are some, but they have the southern (Italy) red-sauce Italian cooking. I serve regional Italian, from all over the boot."

Although he's not Italian himself, Yohalem says he set out to present authentic Italian food based on recipes he has developed himself after years in the restaurant industry and time-honored dishes he learned to cook from some of the best chefs in Italy.

"I serve the Italian foods I like," he says. "Most of the recipes are mine or are classic recipes from generations and generations of Italian chefs -- time-honored recipes." He says it is difficult to rework classics without messing them up. "I'm not willing to do that. I'm going to either come up with something on my own or give you dishes the way they're done by classic chefs."

After only about two months in business, Yohalem says he's already starting to add new things to the menu as his chefs master the dishes already offered. "The basic dishes won't change, but the menu will expand," he says. "What I try to provide is an authentic atmosphere with excellent service in a casual atmosphere with moderate prices."

Inside the restaurant, walls painted with murals of Tuscan scenes are a serene backdrop for tables covered with white tablecloths. In good weather, guests also can choose to sit outside, where there are enough tables to accommodate 40 to 50 diners.

Behind the scenes, Yohalem seeks out fine wines of Italy that compliment the various dishes on his menu and provide diners with a good value for their money. His staff makes everything (except the wine and bread) fresh daily, including the pasta, which is a specialty of Il Piatto.

In addition, Yohalem maintains his own butcher shop in the back where his team cuts up meat and fish to fit specific dishes.

"It's very Old World," he says of the butchering enterprise. "By doing this, we can offer more things and keep the prices low. The prices are very moderate. They will always be that way. Everything we serve is made from scratch. We only use fresh fish and jumbo shrimp, the freshest things I can get. The dishes are things I would cook for myself. If I don't like it, I won't serve it."

Designs With Style

With a stylized new storefront and shop, artist Julie Neill is expanding the merchandise in her store, Julie Neill Designs (3908 Magazine St., 899-4201), to cover a host of fashion bases for the home and body.

Four years ago, Neill moved into a storefront on Magazine Street several blocks from her present location to give herself a place to market the hand-painted furniture, picture frames, wall murals and faux finishes she had been providing out of her home. She soon found a growing demand for her products and expanded into painted mirrors, her own furniture designs and metal lighting fixtures as well as other home decorating accessories.

Once she moved into her new store, she diversified her wares even more, branching out into jewelry, handbags, some clothing items, soaps, upscale lipsticks and nail polish by Bella, and other gifts.

After being in her new place for a half year, Neill says she feels it is the right setting for her store and it has inspired her to branch out artistically even more.

"I love this place," she says. "It's beautiful. I love the location; it's close to everything. I feel spiritually at home in here."

It also has been a great creative atmosphere, and Neill finds her lines of metal lighting fixtures are in high demand. "I really had the lighting happen because I had people say they needed lighting, and there's a lot of bad lighting out there. I hooked up with a good welder and the rest is history." Most of her lighting designs up to this point have been classic and antique looks, but soon she plans to venture into contemporary and retro designs reminiscent of the 1950s and '60s.

"You never know what's going to spring out of my head," Neill says. "If we have a good idea, we make some (samples) up and see how it goes." Other new items include "door charms" such as crowns for Mardi Gras, wedding cakes for bridal couples and more.

click to enlarge A group of friends enjoy a birthday lunch with Brent - Wood (front left) at the new Italian restaurant Il - Piatto Uptown. Joining Wood are RE/MAX agents (l- - r) Sarah Ackerman, Mary Ann Casey and Sterling Joe - Ory.
  • A group of friends enjoy a birthday lunch with Brent Wood (front left) at the new Italian restaurant Il Piatto Uptown. Joining Wood are RE/MAX agents (l- r) Sarah Ackerman, Mary Ann Casey and Sterling Joe Ory.
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