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Ristorante da Piero 

Handmade pastas and a rustic Italian approach make a small Kenner café a dining destination

There's the pasta you cook at home when you want a cheap, filling meal. There's the pasta that bulks up an order of chicken Parmesan or a half-dozen grilled shrimp. And then there's the pasta at Ristorante da Piero, pasta that can stop you mid-bite to savor and make you seriously contemplate an entire meal of starch for your next visit.

This small Kenner cafŽ specializes in the rustic cooking of Romagna, the region of northern Italy where restaurant owner Piero Cenni and his family ran hotels before moving to Louisiana in 1984. In Romagna, handmade pastas like the rolled strings called strozzapreti are everyday fare. In the New Orleans area, it is one of the standout dishes that makes Ristorante da Piero worth a trip across town.

The restaurant is a family affair. Cenni's son Giacomo waits tables and his son Paolo is chef. A great deal of what they serve is made in-house by hand, including the strozzapreti, a word that translates to "priest choker." Among the many colorful anecdotes of its origins, the one Cenni prefers is that during hard times the women who cooked for the Catholic priests in a Romagna town came up with a simple pasta recipe that was so good the priests shoveled it down fast enough they nearly choked on it.

Clergy are not alone on this one. The strozzapreti at Ristorante da Piero could be called artisanal pasta in the face of machine-made noodles, with each finger-long strand bearing lumps, bumps and irregularities. Uglier tends to be better with handmade pasta, and this is ugly pasta.

The Cennis serve strozzapreti a few different ways, and the best is strozzapreti crudita with cherry tomatoes, warm arugula and shavings of excellent, nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano just about melting on top. Another version is made in a rich cream sauce with strips of speck, a smoked Italian pork that falls somewhere between the richness of proscuitto and the chewiness of pancetta. A third option with large, butterflied Gulf shrimp was the spiciest dish on the menu, with plenty of garlic and red pepper.

Another great pasta at Ristorante da Piero is tagliatelle, the northern Italian version of fettuccine with the familiar long, flat, ribbon shape. Here, the strands are thin and luscious and with a little olive oil and crisp peas and cheese shavings they are easy to inhale or even slurp. The gnocchi are triumphs of pillowy lightness -- dense but almost melt-on-the-tongue tender. They are served with a few shavings of that excellent Parmigiano-Reggiano and a luscious cream sauce with something like a lemony tartness from an abundance of gorgonzola smoothly blended in.

The essential goodness of the pasta tends to upstage the rest of the menu, but the short list of entrees is well worth exploring, especially the dishes that showcase more of chef Paolo's creativity. The best meat dish I tried was the duck breast, which was glazed with molasses and set on a wine and onion marmalade sauce with a supporting cast of al dente vegetables and a single ravioli, fried and stuffed with goat cheese.

Other dishes are simpler, like the redfish special sautŽed to have a thin, delicate crust with tender interior meat flaking into planks all lightly dressed with buerre blanc. The filet is exceptionally good meat presented on a bed of arugula with potato logs and a stuffed tomato. Dishes like soft shell crab are forgettable and seem like accommodations to the requests the kitchen surely must field for a few Creole-Italian choices.

This isn't a place to get too excited about appetizers, with the exception of the carpaccio, an excellent and authentic rendition of the classic with shaved, raw sirloin piled with arugula, lemon and Parmigiano-Reggiano sliced into leaves so thin they're practically transparent. After that, there's steamed mussels and crostini, which are nicely composed but still basically toasted bread with a stripe of marinated tomatoes.

The salads are more compelling, especially the gallo salad with fresh baby spinach and cherry tomatoes in an intense balsamic vinegar reduction studded with matchsticks of crunchy prosciutto. The caprese salad was enlivened with razor thin slices of raw garlic and crumbs of sea salt that pop pleasantly under the teeth. The mozzarella was flavorful and pulled apart easily into delicate strands.

Most of the dinner menu is available at lunchtime, when the kitchen also serves a less ambitious and more locally familiar menu. Lunch is when you can get shrimp Creole or baked eggplant with tomato sauce, though I've never been tempted to go in that direction with the other choices on hand.

The wine list is like a user-friendly tour guide of Italian wine regions, with selections from a different area featured on each of its many pages. There are usually only three or four desserts, which are all fairly homey. The tiramisu was perfectly moist and had the warm, mellow buzz of dark chocolate, while the zuppa inglese is like a layered cake and pudding concoction as sweet and colorful as birthday cake.

The biggest threat to any prospect of dessert comes at the beginning of the meal and probably a few times throughout. The kitchen is generous with its specialty bread, an unleavened flatbread from Romagna called piadina. Cut into triangles in the manner of pita bread, piadina has a texture somewhere between biscuit and cracker and is best when piping hot and dipped into a little olive oil. You'll probably eat too much of it, both because it is very good and quite unlike anything we're accustomed to getting at local Italian restaurants, just like the pasta.

click to enlarge Chef Paolo Cenni runs the kitchen for his family's Kenner - restaurant. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
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