Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Italian Barrel

Early last year, The Folk Singer and I checked out the Italian Barrel with the purpose of gathering material for the next Dining Out column in OffBeat. Though we were instantly charmed by the tiny brick-walled dining room and left satisfied with our food, when deciding whether to move forward with the article all I could think about was that the high prices simply did not justify the experience, which was ultimately the reason why Rene and I decided to scrap the Italian Barrel article for another restaurant.

But after two more recent visits, I think that I have come to accept the Italian Barrel for what it is by recognizing that chef-owner Samantha Castagnetti is completely focused on procuring the finest ingredients and letting those speak for themselves. The prices are still too high in my opinion, but with a few ordering tips, one is able to extract the best of what the Italian Barrel has to offer without breaking the bank.

The "Lady of Verona", as Castagnetti is known, believes that the only ingredients worthy of her native cuisine are those produced in her native land. So she flies in all of the oils, vinegars, pastas (both dried and fresh), meats, and cheeses she needs, and then concocts all of the sauces in her kitchen. According to the waitress, perishables are flown in almost daily, and the limited amount of on premises storage is used primarily for the cheeses.

The restaurant itself is intimate to say the least, with the 6 candlelit tables in the dining room seating a grand total of 22 diners. The handful of chairs at the bar are usually occupied by friends of the staff or neighborhood regulars, while a few tables outside on Barracks Street make for pleasant outdoor dining on the relatively quiet section of the Quarter which loses its vibrancy after the neighboring French Market closes down at dusk. Even the tables themselves seem shrunk to fit, with a party of 3 seemingly involved in a constant game of tetris to figure out how to arrange all of their glasses and plates to fit.

As alluded to above, prices at the Italian Barrel are expensive, with salads in the low to mid teens, modest-sized pasta courses a few dollars more, and carnivorous dishes in the $30s. Even the desserts raise an eyebrow at $12. Given the high quality of and importation premium on the ingredients, the level of sticker shock should probably register lower on the richter scale, but dinner at the Italian Barrel is no less than a $40 check average for a modest meal before wine. But it's how you spend that $40 that can greatly affect your level of satisfaction with your meal.

Peroni is available on draft, and the all Italian wine list has a fair number of bottles under $50. Start with the half cheese plate ($18), which features five large wedges of formaggio with varying degrees of texture, strength of flavor, and animals of origin. Accompanying this array are a trio ramekins of truffle honey, chestnut oil, and sweet/sour onion marmalade. This spread was so generous that TFS and I ended up taking over half of it home with us, so the half size is still plenty large enough for a table of 4.

Your meal should primarily consist of what I like to call the "Olive Garden Special": a salad or cold appetizer and a pasta course, but neither of them never-ending. I highly recommend the bresaola ($14), which is a dozen paper thin slices of air dried beef topped with a mess of arugula, a heavy shower of shaved parm, and a simple drizzle of olive oil. An often run special is a combination peppery arugula, silky slices of prosciutto de parma, and tiny bocconcini of mozzarella dressed yet again simply with oil and vinegar.

Pasta courses are reduced in size, but the richness of flavors is magnanimous. Fusilli is tossed in a cream sauce of peas, shallots, and smoky bits of speck. Pumpkin stuffed ravioli are bathed in a puddle of butter and sage. Unfortunately, the texture of the fire roasted ravioli was not up to the level of its brethren, and the sauced lacked zeal. On the opposite end of the spectrum was a special of perfectly toothsome tagliatelle in a richly decadent truffled cream sauce. But make sure to inquire as to price before you order, lest you suffer from the same surprise when we learned this luxurious dish carried a $29 price tag, almost double that of the rest of the pastas. It was still worth every penny though.

Of the short list of meat specialties on the menu, the only one I have sampled is the osso buco. An average sized veal shank arrives at your table with a demitasse spoon stuck into the marrow like the American flag planted on the moon. The veal was quite tender, but the swimming pool of polenta underneath - and the veal to a lesser degree - lacked seasoning. At a whopping $38, your money is best utilized on other choices on the menu.

Tiramisu is, of course, on the menu, and this version is strong on espresso flavor and light on sweetness. The house specialty dessert is a "chocolate salami" - a cylindrical flourless cake studded with crunchy bits of biscotti standing in as the peppercorns. The texture is that of a gritty fudge or an overly dense brownie, and the flavor is excellent.

The Italian Barrel is not a destination for an overkill of Italian fare commonly known as the "feed me" experience. But if you are one who enjoys a simple meal - bottle of wine, hunk of cheese, slices of ham, and a plate of pasta - featuring the finest ingredients that Italy has to offer, then you have come to the right place.

Italian Barrel - Birdie
430 Barracks Street
(504) 569-0198
Lunch and Dinner 7 days a week


Anonymous said...

Good write up. Too many dismiss it based on price, and I think you figured the place out. Hard place to beat if you are looking to pass some time alfresco in the Quarter, when the weather is nice. I would add that the sandwiches, which come on something similar to muffaletta bread are huge, the breseola and argula is a good choice. The salads are also quite large. All in all, I am glad its there. CharlieH

Peter said...


You are right about the salads - I should have mentioned how most fall between appetizer and entree size.

Really, I think that a meal consisting of the bresaola and arugula sald and then one of the pastas is a filling meal for an affordable $30.