Friday night, Mary Ann had it in her mind that we would dine at Irene’s It’s been among the most popular Italian restaurants for over two decades, both among local eaters and visitors from out of town. That fame has expanded particularly since Irene moved to a striking location on Bienville Street between Chartres and Decatur. The building has an interesting past: for many years it was the home of WNOE Radio. Both MA and I have history here - she was offered a job here and also WWL, choosing the latter, and I did food vignettes here. All very long ago.
The building is quite beautiful, with a lovely large courtyard out back. A pergola is under construction. This renovation has turned the place into one of the most handsome places to dine in the city, and the best Italian eatery in that part of town. The large bar and several dining rooms of various sizes make this a place that absolutely thrilled Mary Ann, who is way more into that sort of thing than I.
There’s a lot to be said about Irene DiPietro and her restaurant. It originated in the Nineties when she partnered with Tommy Andrade after the two worked together at The Brick Oven in Kenner. Eventually they split up and Tommy opened Tommy’s in the Warehouse District on Tchoupitoulas. Tommy has since retired, but his namesake restaurant is still there and doing well. Irene’s stayed with the eatery that bears her name on the corner of Chartres and St. Phillip. That was more spacious than it appeared, having been a warehouse.
Irene comes from a famously long history of good Italian restaurants in New Orleans. Brothers Fausto and Rolando operate delicious Fausto’s in Metairie, a much more comfortable feeling and low-key place than glamorous Irene’s, but the food is just as good.
Friends met us here for dinner, and they were running late. We couldn’t sit until they came, so we found ourselves at the long curved bar which makes quite a statement. MA was enthralled with this scene. I asked the bartender for a Half and Half. That’s a long-established cocktail recipe that is popular in Italian restaurants. All of them know what the drink is: sweet Vermouth, a shot of white Vermouth, and a slice - not a squeeze - of lemon. Not lime. Over rocks and shaken. What comes of this is a mellow drink that tastes a lot like a low-alcohol Manhattan, Make sure that the red Vermouth is fresh. A lot of bars have Vermouth that has been sitting around too long.
When our friends arrived we moved to a table near the courtyard. I was looking forward to some eating here. The old Irene’s was always a blend of Italian and Creole-French bistro fare. Two at our table had a soup special of creamy eggplant with shrimp. Delicious was the unanimous report. And I was delighted to regale the waiter with my stream of three soup du jour jokes. In front of me was Oysters Irene. a baked version of oysters with pancetta, pimiento, and Pecorino-Romano. There was a jumbo lump crabmeat au gratin on the table with only two long and thin crostini. Mary Ann thought the flavor odd, but the dish was popping out with huge lumps of perfect crabmeat. What could be wrong with that? I had a Redfish in a Meuniere butter with almonds, with haricot verts and sweet potato mash. On the menu this is Meuniere Amandine. MA is usually not a fan of sweet potato mash, but she kept eating it. As usual, she barely ordered, this time a kid’s meatball and spaghetti that isn’t even on the menu. But she saw a few go to other tables and asked for it. It was an ample pile of spaghetti in a fresh and thick red sauce she loved. The kid’s portion is one meatball, and adults get two. She was glad she got one, and didn’t even eat it. “Handled too much,” she grumbled as she often does if the meatball doesn’t fall apart to the touch. Our friends had the Soft Shell Crab entree and enjoyed that as well.
But the most popular dish of the evening was Irene’s famous bruschetta, which was different than usual. More like a pizza on a slice of bread, it was baked with a tomato slice and cheese. This was devoured. Twice. Note to waiters and eaters: Bruschetta is pronounced as all sh sounds in Italian are pronounced. As a hard “C”. “Broo skett’ ah.
Mary Ann has a saying that it is unfortunate to eat any place where the amuse-bouche is the most amusing thing at the table. While this is true here with the bruschetta we couldn’t stop eating, this was definitely not unfortunate. We all loved it all. Easy to see why Irene’s is, and has been from Day One, the madhouse it is. Don’t even think of going there without a reservation. Trust us.
529 Bienville New Orleans
5:30-10pm Seven Days