The strip where St. Charles Avenue meets Girod Street in the Warehouse District recently has morphed into a small restaurant row. There's the high-profile anchor Herbsaint, a smaller, under-the-radar Italian restaurant, Cibugnu, and the latest addition: Marcello's Restaurant and Wine Bar. Located in the space formerly occupied by Le Chat Noir, the restaurant's decor of wine racks and bottles and black-and-white tiles help the space retain the jovial elegance associated with the cabaret. (The theater's art deco-style black cat tile work is still on the front doorstep.)
The restaurant is divided into distinctive alcoves: a front dining room, perfect for watching passersby through tall picture windows; a glossy, dark-wood bar; and a cavernous rear dining space lined with racks of wine bottles. There's space to accommodate family celebrations and solo imbibers with equal grace. Service is attentive though a touch flighty, with occasional lagging wait times and vanishing staff making some meals feel oddly disjointed.
The restaurant's wine market is one of its more distinctive and impressive features. It allows diners to choose a bottle from the vast selection and enjoy it with their meal without typical restaurant markups. For oenophiles, it's a bacchanalian paradise. For those not interested in choosing between the Caymus Napa Valley and the Chateau Montelena cabernet sauvignons, there's a decent selection of beer and cocktails, and the clove-tinged, citrusy bitters of the housemade arancio speziato (spicy orange) Negroni make for a late summer refresher.
In a city better known for Creole-Italian favorites than rustic Italian fare, Marcello's has little in common with New Orleans' sea of often hackneyed "red gravy" options. The menu is full of familiar Italian comfort food classics — eggplant caponata, veal scaloppine, calamari fritti — that are prepared in a way that reveals new layers of texture and flavor with each plate. The dishes are rustic and refined, particularly the smaller offerings and salads, which effectively balance the entrees' hearty surpluses of meat-and-starch with bits of crisp greenery.
The crab and fennel salad is pricey at $19 but a delightful splurge. The crab alone makes the salad worth every penny, with a snowy white color and sea-fresh taste that is both sweet and briny. It's paired nicely with the salad's push and pull of bitter and supple, with fried capers providing an acidic burst against the juiciness of julienned apple and the fennel's licorice notes. The sea scallops are plump and tender with a perfect sear, nestled on top of crunchy arugula and punchy orange supremes. The mista salad, which can hold its own as a main dish or accompany an entree, is curiously colorful, topped with the kind of finely minced olive salad usually piled on muffulettas. The salad's eggplant croutons are a welcome, poppable treat, and could be a buy-in-bulk bagged snack.
Entrees are a collection of rustic Italian favorites, arriving well portioned and generally well-seasoned if light on salt. The Marsala pork cheek dish is a robust introduction for those unfamiliar with this often overlooked cut of pig, which is slowly braised until fork-tender and has both a gelatinous shimmer and deep pork flavor. Marcello's chicken cacciatore easily could have come from an Italian grandmother's country kitchen, offering the kind of stick-to-your-ribs appeal that could induce homesickness.
A bowl full of dreamily cooked pappardelle steals the show in a dish full of showstoppers — lightly crisped pancetta, charred Brussels sprouts — with ribbons of al dente pasta tossed in peppery Parmesan carbonara.
Marcello's caters to the nearby suit-and-tie lunch crowd with a number of reasonably priced panini options at lunch. There's an Italian dip sandwich with wagyu beef and sinus-clearing horseradish aioli ($13) and the "after school special," which pairs a prosciutto-lined grilled cheese sandwich with a bowl of creamy tomato soup ($11).
Marcello's is a top-notch option for old-school Italian fine dining, unafraid to set the standard for a sophisticated, loosen-your-belt meal.