The great-grandson of Sicilian immigrants, chef Nick Lama pays tribute to his heritage in more ways than one at his restaurant Avo, which opened earlier this year in the Uptown spot that once housed Martinique Bistro.
The restaurant's name means "ancestor" in Italian, and there are large black-and-white photographs of Lama's grandparents covering the walls of the cool-toned main dining room. And of course, everything on the menu — from the food to the wine list — is Italian.
But rather than open another Creole-Italian joint, Lama — who was formerly chef de cuisine at Gautreau's — serves regional Italian cuisine in a fine-dining format.
There are undeniably rustic touches, such as tiny ceramic vessels used to pool bright green olive oil or bubbling lasagne. But Avo also has a distinctly modern feel, exemplified by its dramatic redesign.
Despite the changes, the space's romantic ambience wasn't completely lost in the makeover. The outside terrace covered in ivy, with its retractable roof and dim lighting, is the best spot to dine.
At first glance the menu reads straight-forwardly Italian, but a closer look reveals a chef dedicated to using to local ingredients, where recipes are tweaked and reinterpreted, often focusing on seasonal ingredients, to varying degrees of success.
Char-grilled octopus is tossed with a mix of cranberries and tart pomegranate seeds, giving it an acidic jolt. What at first seems like an odd pairing is balanced by wisps of whipped lardo and a deeply smoky strip of roasted eggplant. Black garlic, spread in a glossy paste across the plate, carries a slightly sweet, mildly funky taste, adding the depth needed to balance a dish brimming with bright flavors.
Lama, whose father once owned the then seafood-centric St. Roch Market, dedicates a good portion of his menu to seafood.
A special of lightly battered and fried cuttlefish made me want to swear off calamari forever. Plated with lemony aioli bursting with capers, the golden crescents were bouncy and tender — the faint sweetness of the meat for once not overshadowed by excessive breading and grease.
Hamachi crudo features delicate slices of the fish sidling up to juicy orange segments. The dish is showered with shaved fennel and fresh fronds, the stronger flavors of the fish balanced as much by the acid as by the heavy anise presence. In a nod to the Sicilian condiment, the dish is decorated with salmoriglio, a parsley and garlic-forward mix heavy with citrus and olive oil.
Handmade pastas take the true Italian route and are designed to take up their own mid-course, so sharing an additional entree afterward wouldn't be unthinkable. However, portion sizes vary from dish to dish, and one would be hard-pressed to finish the short-rib lasagna and still come away wanting more. Served under a bubbling bechamel cap, the dish delivers classic cold-weather comfort, packing layers of sauteed mushrooms, thick sheets of chewy pasta and deeply earthy short rib ragu.
It's a good idea to consult a server about portion size before ordering. A dish of pumpkin ravioli bathed in brown butter and sprinkled with ricotta salata was shockingly skimpy in comparison.
Linguine with clams lacked depth. Though the clams were plentiful, the dominant flavors of white wine and garlic overpowered some of the more delicate, saline aspects of the dish.
Desserts fare well here, in particular the chocolate and espresso budino, a close replica of its French counterpart, pot de creme. The thick, inky chocolate cream carries coffee notes strong enough to render an after-dinner espresso unnecessary. Even better, though, are accompanying pistachio biscotti — with a strong anise aroma — that put a sea of stale knockoffs to shame.
Overall, Lama delivers on his promise to serve regional Italian fare. There's no shortage of creativity behind the kitchen doors, and as the seasons change, it will be fun to see what the chef does next.