Elegant northern Italian cuisine quite different from the New Orleans norm
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
I knew the Italian Barrel would be different when my chicken arrived and I couldn't see it. The promised chicken breast was there all right, but it was completely obscured by a billowing pile of speck, the smoky, leaner cousin of prosciutto. Beneath the gorgeous bouquet of cured pork oozed a thick, creamy layer of melted Fontina cheese, while the lightly panéed chicken lay deeper still.
There were breadsticks and olive oil for dipping on the table but no sign of the Sicilian and southern Italian influences so prominent at other local Italian restaurants. Rather, the Italian Barrel specializes in the northern Italian cuisine chef/proprietor Samantha Castagnetti grew up eating and later cooking at her first restaurant in Verona. Her mother is a New Orleans native, and through regular trips to visit family, the Crescent City became a second home. Last summer, she opened the Italian Barrel in the tiny space by the French Market that had long been a smoothie shop.
As the chicken dish made clear, Castagnetti uses a great deal of imported Italian meats on her menu. She prepares both an appetizer and entrée with bresaola, the cured beef that is sliced thin enough to be nearly transparent. Deeply purple, the meat is moist, delicate and left to its own considerable merit with just a salad of arugula, black pepper and shaved planks of Parmigiano-Reggiano draped over the top.
More imported glories arrived on the meat and cheese platters, which are well sourced, generously served and utterly intriguing. They are grouped on wooden pizza boards with at least seven choices on each, and they make for a deliciously diverse romp. It's fun to alternate between the spicy and mild sopressa, the velvety smooth prosciutto cotto, the whisper-thin mortadella and the decadently fatty pancetta.
Cheeses are not served as dainty pads but substantial slices, so there is enough of each to experiment with accoutrements like chestnut oil and truffle-laced honey. Most are from northern Italy, and again, the variety is impressive with creamy, hard, semisoft, pungent, gentle, subtle and assertive flavors all represented. I wished for a map, like the guide on a chocolate box, but there was not a dud in the bunch.
Several of the salads can double as entrees, including the sea salad, a jumble of squid, baby octopus, shrimp and mussels over greens in a very light marinade. The seafood tasted fresh, and the contrast between the different types kept things interesting, but more oil or seasoning would help. The "esotica salad" combining shrimp, mango chunks and lemony dressing was more satisfying.
The hearty slab of beef lasagna is an exception among the pastas here, which otherwise are vegetable-filled ravioli and tortellini. While tender and flavorful, the portions are so modest I found myself counting out individual pumpkin tortellini and adjusting my pace of consumption to stretch the duration of the meal.
The Italian Barrel is certainly a nice place to linger. There are just six tables inside the cozy and casually romantic dining room plus a few outdoor tables and a narrow bar, which gives the restaurant a credible sideline as an Italian wine bar. Most of the 40 or so wines are available by the glass, and, of course, the meat and cheese platters make extraordinary bar snacks.
The Italian Barrel
430 Barracks St., 569-0198; www.theitalianbarrel.com
Lunch and dinner Tue.-Sun.
Exceptional cured meats and Italian cheeses and delicate pastas for light, reasonably priced meals
Modest portions and stark presentations may disappoint those accustomed to more robust Italian dining