There's a case to be made that at some level all Italian food is comfort food, and nowhere is that more evident than at our region's Creole-Italian restaurants. Ristorante Filippo is a prime example.
Twists of steaming-hot seeded loaves arrive like their own indispensable course, and appetizers could be shared not just by the whole table but by an entire family. After ordering heaping platters of spaghetti, paneed meats and bales of Parmesan, diners typically depart so laden with bags of leftovers it looks like they've been shopping. These are the hallmarks of a type of restaurant New Orleanians love and know by heart.
The familiarity and welcome is especially important to note in this case. After all, if you haven't made it to Ristorante Filippo since chef Phillip Gagliano opened it in 2001, it can seem like a private club, surrounded by SUVs and town cars on a little island between traffic interchanges. Open the door, though, and you'll find a little oasis of old-school style.
An antique cabinet supports a statue of St. Joseph, the reservations book, a cluster of roses and Champagne magnums. Thick blinds keep the small dining room in perpetual dusk, crooners croon over the sound system and a padded bar curves away into a nook of a lounge. When the chef visits a table of guests, he's more likely to talk about their kids' high school sports exploits than about his food.
For the most part the food speaks for itself. Baked oysters become a delicious, spoonable casserole of molten breading, oil and cheese. Meatballs are massive orbs that crunch with garlic and fall apart to create a sort of bolognese in the marinara and spaghetti. Each layer of tiramisu ripples with espresso.
The strength of the menu is not in its great diversity but in the textbook consistency of its sauces, led by the marinara, a dark, fine rendition with the texture of gravy and a sweetness tempered by the quantities of ground and shredded Parmesan that eventually meld with it. The veal Marsala, equal parts meat and mushrooms over a huge pile of noodles, is almost entirely glazed with the classic amber-hued commingling of wine, butter and stock. The color of paneed chicken here could define "golden brown," especially when set against a white tangle of fettuccine ribbons coated in rich Alfredo sauce.
I often wished the kitchen took one or two more steps. What if the prosciutto on the towering veal Sorrentina was crisped, I wondered while carrying home half of the enormous dish for tomorrow's lunch. What if something fresher was swapped for the Caprese salad now that the summer's tomatoes are just a seasonal memory?
But you have to know what experience you're coming for at a place like Ristorante Filippo, and that's a getaway to a kingdom of sweet marinara, chianti, garlic and a continuous loop of Sinatra.