870 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
Napoleon's Rating - ****/*****
It wasn't so long ago that dining at Italian restaurants around New Orleans meant familiar courses of comfort food, and lots of it. But a different approach at some new places is shining light on lesser-known dishes and traditions from the many diverse regions around Italy. A Mano is one such restaurant, and it's been turning heads for its rustic and deeply satisfying renditions of old world flavors. The restaurant's name is Italian for "by hand" and that sums up a concept full of house-made pastas, sausages and cured meats. Chef Adolfo Garcia of RioMar, La Boca and Gusto opened a Mano in 2009 with chef Joshua Smith at the helm in the kitchen.
A Mano is in the former Hipstix space, not far from Garcia's other restaurants. It's in the corner of an old warehouse, and the interior has been handsomely designed with earth-tone colors to complement the wood beams and exposed brick walls of the once-industrial space. There's an attractive bar set off a bit from the dining room, which is good for solo diners or for people who just want to split a salumi platter. Look for the glass-fronted closet in the dining room for a sneak peak of the house-made meats hung inside to finish.
The staff is on the ball without being overbearing. Most patrons need a little guidance with the unfamiliar items on this menu, and the people here do a good job guiding newcomers around.
The overall approach of a Mano is on display with its affettati misti, or the combination platter of house-cured meats. The particular meats change all the time, but the selection on one recent visit was representative: rabbit terrine, dense sopressata, prosciutto and succulent slices of cured duck. Look too for the bruschetta di 'nduja, a fiery, smoky Calabrian sausage spread served over grilled bread. Fans of offal may go for the beef tripe appetizer, though I'm more fond of the seafood options, like the thinly-sliced, house-cured tuna "carpaccio," dressed with basil and olive oil, or the salad of lightly cooked octopus, shrimp and squid over potatoes. A selection of Italian cheeses is another option, though I prefer this as a dessert.
Get the rabbit here and it's like you've ordered two modest, complementary dishes. A long platter arrives with a bowl holding roasted rabbit leg with garlic, thyme and olives in a salty, sop-worthy juice. Across the platter, there's the a Milanese-style rabbit cutlet -- pounded thin, lightly breaded and fried and topped with fresh arugula, lemon, red onions and tart caperberries. It's a magnificent and utterly fulfilling combination. Figs, Marsala and an orange-pistachio gremolata bring out the full savor of seared duck breast. Of the hand-made pastas, my favorite is the slippery-smooth orrechiette, which cup bits of fennel sausage and bitter kale. I also like the penne tossed with shrimp, garlic, parsley and more of that 'nduja spread, which adds a blast of meaty, spicy savor. There's not much on a Mano's menu for vegetarians, though the gnudi make an offbeat option. These resemble dumplings made of ricotta and spinach and they sit in a bowl of sage-scented brown butter and mushrooms. This is quite good, though a Mano is definitely a restaurant geared toward the pleasures of meat.
The focus on traditional Italian flavors means dessert here goes far beyond the typical tiramisu. Cassata Siciliana, for instance, is lush, Marsala-soaked sponge cake with ricotta, chocolate and candied citrus, while panna cotta is spiked up by plums poached in Chianti and sprinkled with sea salt.
The wine list is fixed firmly on Italian wines, and while it's not terribly long it includes a diverse and interesting selection arranged by geographic region. The bartenders make good sparkling wine cocktails too, like a bellini with peach puree and prosecco. Limoncello is made on site and makes a nice, strong after-dinner drink.
Prices fall on the low side for fine dining, though all those options for meat and cheese courses have a way of driving up the bill. Most of the entrees hover around $20 and pastas make appropriately economic entrees with most between $13 and $15. Expect to spend at least $100 on dinner for two with drinks.
The cuisine at a Mano might come across as refreshing and exciting, although it is intimately linked with age-old Italian custom. By digging deeper into vast and varied cooking traditions, this restaurant is helping make the flavors of the Old Country accessible to a new generation of diners, and it's bringing welcome new diversity to the New Orleans dining scene.