For most New Orleanians, the dishes at their favorite “Italian” restaurant bear little resemblance to the indigenous cuisine of Italy. While delicious in doses, Creole-Italian—with its dominant smooth-and-sweet red gravy and various meats stuffed with garlicky bread crumbs—lacks the finesse and simplicity of true Italian cooking. Recently, though, restaurants focusing on regional Italian specialties have blossomed throughout the city, and one of the best examples of this genre is Mariza.
On the ground floor of the Rice Mill Lofts in the Bywater, Ian Schnoebelen and his partner Laurie Casebonne turn out Italian fare with panache, paired with a well-edited and affordable cocktail and wine list. Start your meal with a refreshing Aperol spritz or any number of amaros as an apertif, followed by oysters on the half-shell dressed with a classic mignonette or dashes of the house-made green hot sauce. You’ll swoon over the luscious crudo of fresh fish thinly sliced and decorated with little more than salt, lemon juice, olive oil and a smear of pungent pesto. A vegetable salad tosses together candy-striped beets, baby vegetables, lettuces and whatever else happens to be fresh with thin shavings of pecorino romano.
A salumi plate studded with house-cured meats is almost required at any restaurant today, but here you will find yourself fighting over the hogshead cheese, which is curled into a ball and deep-fried. Juicy burrata shares a plate with accoutrements, which are fine and lovely, but the star of the show is the soft and seductively rich cheese, which does not let you forget its sweet kiss.
Lamb is a wise choice, whether as meatballs crowned with a poached duck egg or the cannibalistic belly stuffed with ground lamb and then braised in San Marzano tomato sauce and served atop creamy polenta (a steal at $16). The kitchen gets too cute on pastas, which are all delightful but served with an unnecessary plank of toasted bread slathered with a topping that belongs in the dish. But push that logistical challenge aside and dig into a bowl of green tagliatelle with guanciale, tomato and olives, or a tangle of black linguini studded with crabmeat and briny shrimp and then coated in the holy trinity of Italy: garlic, wine and tomato.
A chocolate terrine coated in a slick of grassy olive oil and sea salt has the consistency of unbaked brownie batter (and we use that term endearingly). The combination is quite the Spanish way to end an Italian meal, but who says that any cuisine is sacrosanct?
Address: 2900 Chartres St.
Hours: Tues-Thurs 5–10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5–11 p.m.