Lakeview: 1900 Harrison Ave.
Harrison Avenue between Canal Boulevard and City Park has always been the commercial (and, more or less, the geographical) center of the Lakeview neighborhood. The permanent paved parking lots in the neutral ground attest to a lot of business going on.
Although a fair number of restaurants has always existed in that stretch, things started getting really delicious in the early 1990s. New, original bistros in Lakeview were good enough to attract people from other parts of town.
That momentum was growing nicely in 2005. Then Katrina’s floods put the kibosh on the entire Harrison Avenue strip and everything around it, with many feet of water standing for weeks. Fortunately, once everyone picked up the pieces, the burgeoning scene resumed, and Harrison Avenue now has an all-time record number of places to eat.
The restaurant that marked the beginning of the new Harrison Avenue scene was short-lived but influential. Bacchi (pronounced “botchie,” not the more correct Italian “bockie”) was two eateries in one. Facing Harrison Avenue through former store windows was Bacchi’s casual, Italian-style deli. It served sandwiches, platters of deli meats (we didn’t know the word “salumi” yet) and cheeses. And antipasti in forms not familiar to most diners. It was the kind of food we knew only from the Central Grocery or (if we were old enough, and I wasn’t) the old Solari’s.
Behind that and past the bar, Bacchi evolved into a more formal dining room. It was now in the space where the Steak Knife opened for business in 1972. That restaurant was the kind of Lakeview dining, and had moved to bigger quarters across Marshal Foch Street. But its old place was pleasant enough for what Ron and Regina Keever had in mind.
The Keevers had some restaurant experience, most famously as Susan Spicer’s partners in Bayona. (They still are.) Susan wasn’t much involved with Bacchi, if she was at all. Ironically, she would return to this very spot twenty years later to open her Mondo bistro, with the Keevers being the uninvolved party that time.
Bacchi opened with a culinary genius of the same esteem as Susan Spicer, though. Kevin Vizard was there for less than a year (Kevin never had and never would do long-term), but while he was he constructed a very appealing, moderately-priced, rather ambitious menu of current Italian dishes.
The centerpiece was a wood-burning stone oven for pizzas. This was a new element on the New Orleans dining scene in the early 1990s. Only the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen and the Brick Oven Café had attempted to replace the standard gas pizza oven with this troublesome, antique pizza technology.
Kevin Vizard had a bit of experience with wood-fired pizza from his previous gig (the Bayou Ridge Café). His toppings ranged from the conventional to the fanciful. Although the sauces, meats, cheeses, and vegetables are beyond reproach, they’ve never seemed to get the hang of baking a great pizza crust at Bacchi. It always seemed too puffy and soft to me.
It was, however, perfect for calzones, the inside-out half-moon pizza pie. One day it was filled with duck sausage; another it was made with smoked salmon. Fresh herbs, zingy cheeses, and crisp vegetables were also enclosed beneath the crust.
The other major Bacchi specialty was pasta, at which the restaurant was not only original but tastefully so. This was especially true of seafood pastas. The crabmeat cannelloni, for example. The crabmeat component was generous and rich with cream. An admixture of cheese and fresh basil also went into the tubes. After being enclosed in pasta sheets and flooded over with sauce, the whole thing was cooked to bubbling–and to light-brown edges–in the pizza oven.
On another day, the chef filled some large pasta shells with a combination of crawfish, crunchy belly peppers, and cheese. This was washed over in a pretty pink-orange sauce, creamy but not absurdly so. A plate of penne studded with pieces of veal, olives, capers, feta cheese, and a thin but intensely flavorful veal-stock-based brown sauce showed that it wasn’t all crab and cream here. Roasted chickens and ducks and grilled fish made up the major protein part of the offerings.
Polenta was not common in 1990s New Orleans, but here it was, in grilled wedges with pancetta, shreds of spinach, and fried oysters. We would soon see a lot of what Bacchi cooked in many other restaurants, as a taste for Tuscan Italian food swept across the city.
I never heard a reason for Bacchi’s closing. It wasn’t the location. Or was it? Numerous other restaurants followed Bacchi into and out of this space, with Barataria being the best of them. (It was there to be wiped out by Katrina.) If there’s a hex on the building, it isn’t affecting Susan Spicer, whose Mondo remains busy all the time.