430 Barracks St
New Orleans, LA 70116
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
The menu served at the Italian Barrel may seem unconventional to a local palate trained by lusty Creole-Italian, with its reliance on Sicilian red sauces and paneed meats. The Italian Barrel is quite a different restaurant. It specializes in the northern Italian cuisine that chef and proprietor Samantha Castagnetti grew up eating and cooking in her hometown of Verona. From a very small spot in the French Quarter she quietly serves some of the most exciting Italian cuisine in town.
The Italian Barrel opened in 2008 in the tiny space by the French Market that had long been a smoothie shop. It's behind the Old U.S. Mint museum and is very easy to overlook. The economy of space inside reminds me of some New York City restaurants, and though it's in the French Quarter once you enter its doors there is little to place you in New Orleans. There is a long, narrow bar, which feels somewhere between cozy and cramped, but nonetheless makes a good perch for a solo meal or to share a cheese plate and glass of wine on a casual visit. The dining room, decorated with old barrels and large-format wine bottles, has perhaps eight tables. In nice weather, the sidewalk tables are a good option.
I've never seen more than one server on duty at a time here, but I've also never seen the restaurant completely full, so it works out. As usual, you can expect somewhat slower service outside and the most responsive service sitting at the bar, but I've never had anything less than competent and energetic service. Waiters will describe dishes with a personal touch, which helps with some less-then-familiar preparations.
One of the Italian Barrel's crowning glories is its way with meat and cheese platters. It's hard to conceive of more generous or varied versions of either. They're pricey, but certainly worth it if you want to spend some time grazing through the seven or eight different choices on each, and indeed with good company, some hot bread and a bottle of wine they could make an ideal meal all on their own. The bresaola is a good option for a more restrained first course. This is cured beef, sliced very thin, and it tastes moist, rich and delicate, needing just some pepper and Parmigiano Reggiano over the top to complete the dish. Lighter still is an order of very tender proscuitto twirled around narrow, crisp breadsticks, looking like the fine ham was melted onto the bread.
Several of the salads can double as entrees but make good first courses also. The "sea salad," for instance, is a very fresh, light jumble of squid, baby octopus, shrimp and mussels over greens, and a little lemon, salt and pepper makes them shine. Another good option is the "esotica salad," which has shrimp, mango chunks and a lemony dressing.
While they can be expensive, the entrees here leave a lasting impression and are so finely wrought they really do justify the price. For instance, the veal is lightly paneed then covered by huge, whole porcini mushrooms, tasting very earthy and fired up by white and black truffle oils and sea salt. A discrete side of linguini, cooked al dente and finished with garlic and crushed grape tomatoes, completes this excellent dish. Chicken at Italian restaurants is so often done in textbook Parmigiana style. But here the cutlet is pan-fried, smothered by nutty, melted Fontina cheese then wrapped in billowing speck, the leaner, smoky cousin of prosciutto, and finally piled with fat, chopped chanterelles. Pastas are much less expensive options, and many are ravioli or tortellini filled with roasted and pureed vegetables and cheese. They make relatively light entrees and offer many choices for vegetarians. The pumpkin ravioli are especially good. I also like the fusilli pasta with peas and ham, draped by a rich but measured cream sauce. A hearty serving of beef lasagna stands out among the pastas for its size and heft. The menu remains basically the same at lunch and dinner, with the addition at lunch of a list of enormous panini crammed with meat and cheese.
I had some fun imagining how the "chocolate salami" might turn out, but when the dessert arrived the name made sense. It was a loaf of dark chocolate glittering with crumbled bits of salty, crunchy biscotti, which resembled the white dots of fat in salami, and it was sliced thin to complete the look. It was a lovely, mellow finale. The tiramisu is a more traditional dessert, but it lacked that espresso punch I crave from the dish.
The Italian Barrel has a full bar, though wine is the way to go here. The list is filled with delightful Italian bottles, and the by-the-glass list is impressive for a place of this size.
The Italian Barrel can be very expensive if you let it. While most of the pasta dishes are in the mid-teens, many of the entrees approach or breach the $30 mark. There can be some sticker shock with the appetizers too, some of which exceed $20, though these are more like grazing platters intended to be shared by several people.
There is elegance to the cooking here, but it's hardly austere. Portions can seem modest and presentations even a bit stark compared with the gregarious Creole-Italian style, but there's no arguing with the goodness of a huge plate of cured meats or slabs of cheese, with pastas sauced expertly rather than abundantly and with dishes that sparkle on the palate with truffle oil, sea salt and cracked pepper. This is a tiny, romantic, different sort of Italian restaurant, and one that has made my short list of persistent cravings.