2900 Chartres St., New Orleans 504-598-5700
FOUR STARS (out of four)
Chef Ian Schnoebelen and his partner Laurie Casebonne established themselves with Iris, the standout contemporary bistro they run in the French Quarter. Early in 2013 they doubled down with Mariza, a different sort of restaurant not far away on the border between the Marigny and the Bywater. The food is Italian, though a different read from the Creole-Italian, red sauce and lasagna style, and the setting is more casual.
In fact, the setting is wonderful. Mariza is inside a former industrial building and it uses the old bones of the place to good effect. Bare brick and massive timbers are set against broad windows and a contemporary bar that blends into the semi-open kitchen and oyster bar area. The place always feels bustling, though the room soaks up some of the noise so it’s not too raucous. A few long, sometimes communal tables occupy part of the room, and there’s a small private area off to the side. Though casual the restaurant is also stylish, and people seem to dress up just a touch more than they might for your normal pizza outing. One special note: the big, usually empty parking lot just outside is off-limits to restaurant patrons. It’s a notorious tow trap watched at all hours. So, as tempting as it looks, don’t park there.
Mariza doesn’t take reservations, and it has been popular from the start. This means you may end up waiting for a table. That said, the staff does a commendable job of managing the traffic flow, and once you’re seated everything flows smoothly.
The menu begins with crostini and bruschetta and meat and cheese plates and these are indispensible when you have a few people at your table to share them. Don’t overlook the raw bar, which has oysters on the half shell and a great deal more. Mariza does a wonderful job with crudo, the Italian answer to sashimi, with raw fish dressed in olive oil and sea salt. And if the raw salad sounds tame compared to plates of prosciutto and Italian cheeses, just try it. The make a fresh, always changing array of vegetables beautiful and irresistible. Other dishes here toe the line between appetizer and entrée. You can get pastas, for instance, by the half order or full order, though half is often enough when you’re sharing other dishes too. Gnocchi is a particular standout.
Strictly speaking the entree list is short, but ordering a few of the smaller dishes is often the best way to eat here anyway. Still, the steak is always first-rate, like a recent rib eye, which was very lean for this cut but full of flavor and served Tuscan style over greens. There’s a whole fish, again simply presented. Perhaps my favorite on the entrée list is a modest-sized, outrageously flavorful dish of grilled quails, wrapped in salty pancetta (like Italian bacon) and drizzled with saba, a very intense, syrup-thick relative to balsamic vinegar. The vegetable lasagna is light and utterly satisfying.
Desserts are few, simple, excellent and distinctly Italian. The slab of chocolate terrine – a cool bar of chocolate a little softer than fudge – is “dressed” with sea salt and olive oil for instance.
The wine list is not comprehensive but it is intriguing and very well paired to the food. Naturally the focus is on Italian bottles, and the bar also makes classic Italian cocktails. The negroni and the refreshing, lighter Aperol spritz are favorites.
Mariza is moderately-priced, with most individual items in the teens. Still, there is a lot here you’ll want to sample. A couple should plan on spending about $75 for dinner.
This restaurant is the complete package for casual dining. The vibe is both stylish and welcoming and the cuisine is honest, vividly flavorful, thoughtfully sourced and beautifully presented. It’s an ideal pick for a casual night when you want out-of-the-ordinary food.