Ristorante Da Piero
401 Williams Blvd
Kenner, LA 70062
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
Forget everything you know about Creole-Italian cooking, the locally dominant red sauces and bready, panned veal or eggplant when you approach Ristorante da Piero. This is a very different type of Italian restaurant, one informed by the family owners' heritage in the Romagna region of northern Italy. The focus is on grilled meats, handmade pastas and refined entrees on par with the offerings from fine restaurants in the city.
The long, narrow, familiar layout of an old New Orleans shotgun house is the setting for this restaurant, which is decorated just as a home would be with sideboards, family photos and mirrors. A large brick patio outside is a nice option in mild weather. The restaurant is in the middle of Kenner's Rivertown, with its engineered, small-town feel of themed storefronts and small museums and attractions. At night, these nice surroundings are usually pretty quiet, giving a strange, Disney-after-hours feel to the whole area.
This is a family-run restaurant, and that plays out in familial, welcoming and not-at-all formal service. Waiters give off the attitude that you should already know all about their regional cuisine. Nevertheless, they get the job done and will field questions. The owner, Piero Cenni, or the chef, his son Paolo, usually pays a friendly visit to check in with each table.
Ristorante da Piero doesn't put much emphasis on appetizers. The selection is small, and half of them are either crostini or bruschetta - slivers of crisp bread with fresh but minimal toppings. The carpaccio is much more exciting, provided you're up for raw sirloin with lemon, bitter arugula and razor-thin sheets of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Salads make up for a lot, though, especially the caprese salad with uncommonly flavorful mozzarella and very thin slices of raw garlic. Be careful not to fill up on the hot bread brought to each table. It's a cracker-like crunchy specialty called piadina, and it is irresistible when served hot and dipped in olive oil.
The menu follows the Italian tradition of listing pastas as "primi piatti," or first courses, and the more substantial entrée-style dishes as "secondi piatti." The best way to eat here is to skip the appetizers altogether, split an order of pasta with your dining companion and then dive in with the entrées.
No matter how you arrange things, though, don't miss the pasta. This is no ordinary starch. The noodle itself can be the main event, and it doesn't disappoint. The great specialty of the kitchen is the strozzapreti, which translates to "priest choker" but is much more appetizing than that sounds. The strands of strozzapreti are a few inches long, and irregular with little bumps. They are fantastic with a cream sauce and bits of smoked, cured, chewy Italian pork, called speck, or in a lighter dish called strozzapreti crudita with arugula, cherry tomatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The better-known pastas are also exceptional, like the tender, soft gnocchi in gorgonzola cream sauce and the tortellini with ricotta and spinach.
Where the pastas are lusty and rustic, the "secondi" show a high level of attention to detail and focus on composition. This plays out best with the roasted rabbit, left tender and distinctively itself and complemented by a rich, mellow Madera and sage sauce, still-crisp wilted kale and grilled tomatoes. The glaze on the duck breast was too thick and sweet, however, and the fried confit over it was like biting into crisped fat. The roasted chicken could be boring served somewhere else, or at least just a standard poultry standby, but not from this kitchen. Fennel seems to infuse the moist flesh and wild mushrooms and smoked alligator sausage add earthy depth to a creamy sauce.
While entrees and pastas are intriguing, the dessert list is quite conventional, upscale Italian - layered, colorful zuppa inglese cake, dark, soft, rich tiramisu.
There is a full bar, and the wine list naturally focuses on northern Italian labels. This is a huge list divided into Italian growing regions.
Prices are high, but in line with the quality and presentation expected at this level. Most entrees are around $25, the average pasta is $16 and appetizers and salads are between $8 and $10. The wine list is well-selected, but there aren't many bargains. A couple should expect to pay around $130.
If you have Italian-American comfort food or Creole-Italian seafood dishes in mind, this is not the restaurant for you. But as a glimpse of a different style of Italian cuisine at a high level of polish, and as a chance to delve into superlative pastas, Ristorante da Piero is in a league of its own. There are a few weak spots - namely appetizers and desserts - but the specialties they bracket at Ristorante da Piero make this place worth crossing town to experience.