WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
Something about this tiny, quirky cafe makes many fast friends. Most nights the place is fully engaged by people who are clearly enthralled to be there. They are quick to tell you how different–and, it’s understoood, how superior–the food is here from that of other Italian restaurants. However, unless you have limited your Italian dining to Venezia or Tony Angello’s, you will not find a lot of new ground broken here.
The Barrel claims to purvey Northern Italian food–something few local restaurants have ever done well. It shows up here in a menu that emphasizes cured meats, cheeses, cream sauces, seafood and veal. But hallmarks of the northern style–risotto, for example, or polenta–are scarce. There’s no shortage of red sauce. Never mind. Everything is well made from vividly fresh groceries and first-class imported pastas, cheeses, and salumi.
Samantha Castagnetti, native of Verona, opened the Italian Barrel during the post-Katrina recovery. The name and the design suggested a wine shop or deli as much as it did a restaurant. All this and the location in the restaurant row near the Old U.S. Mint charmed enough people to get the word out.
The building is old even by French Quarter standards. While it’s in good repair, it has some problems. On a cold night, it’s drafty. The dining room layout is tight. Tables have the smallest zone of privacy, and those eating at the bar will not find it easy. But for some customers, all this adds to the charm. The service staff is friendly and forthcoming with good advice on ordering.
»Bresaola (cured beef with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese)
»Sea salad (baby octopus, clams, shrimp, calamari
Prosciutto salad, arugula, fresh mozzarella cheese
»Mussels steamed with wine, parsley and garlic
Cherrystone clams, sauteed, wine, parsley and garlic
Cantaloupe and prosciutto
»Porcini and truffle ravioli
Ravioli filled with fire roasted tomatoes, basil, mozzarella cheese
Spinach ravioli, tomato basil sauce
»Pumpkin ravioli, butter and sage
»Penne al’arrabbiata (spicy tomato sauce, Italian sausage)
Gnocchi, tomato basil sauce, gorgonzola cream sauce, or meat sauce
»Samantha’s fusilli, cream sauce, peas, shallots, speck
Penne pasta, crabmeat, vodka sauce
Seafood linguine, seafood-infused red sauce
Chicken Alberto (breaded, Italian ham, mozzarella, shiitake mushrooms)
»Chicken or veal Parmigiana
»Filet mignon with green peppercorn cream sauce or Gorgonzola cheese
»Veal porcini (breaded, white wine, porcini mushrooms, linguine, white truffle oil)
»Jumbo lump crabmeat, greens, roasted peppers, asparagus, avocado, cherry tomatoes
Nicoletta salad (greens, red oniions, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, basil balsamic vinigrette)
Sicilian salad (greens, avocado, tomato, artichoke, sun dried tomatoes)
»Italian salad (tomatoes, basil, “bufala” mozzarella)
Ahi tuna salad, greens, red and yellow tomatoes, sesame seeds, mango, cilantro ginger vinaigrette
Vanilla vodka orange sorbetto
FOR BEST RESULTS
Reservations are essential. The appetizers–notably the cured meat and cheese plates, are designed to serve at least two people. Splitting an order of pasta as a starter is a good idea, but be sure they know you’re doing this, or you’ll wind up with two hot courses in front of you.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
The menu here is so unconventional that it’s challenging to figure out what to order. Much less seafood than you’re used to appears in the menu. Prices are also significantly higher than one might guess, stopping just short of outrageous. Ask about prices for the specials, which have punched deep into the $40s.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +1
- Value -1
- Attitude +1
- Wine & Bar +1
- Hipness +2
- Local Color +3
- Sidewalk tables
- Open Sunday dinner
- Open Monday dinner
- Reservations recommended
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
It’s a strange world we live in. Two of the hottest restaurant categories right now are chains with ordinary food but extravagantly expensive premises, and locally-owned eateries with unique cooking in minimal circumstances. Both types are packed all the time. This week and next I present good examples of each.