NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Irene’s Cuisine’s customers have not been silent. Alarmed over last fall’s announcement that the French Quarter restaurant would be moving to a new location, regulars have shared displeasure, anxiety and skepticism with owner Irene DiPietro and her son, chef Nicholas Scalco.
“You’re not going to be able to capture the ambiance,” is one of two comments Scalco said he hears most often. “The other comment is, ‘You’re taking the door, right?'”
The cypress wood door has been welcoming diners into Irene’s from St. Philip Street since 1993. That’s the year DiPietro, crestfallen about the end of her marriage, channeled her grief into the opening of Irene’s, which has been a fixture in the lower French Quarter ever since.
“Between the crying and the problems I was having outside this little door, this became like a sanctuary for me,” DiPrieto said last week, referring to the earliest days of her restaurant.
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The 73-year-old native of Noto, Sicily, sat in the innermost of Irene’s three dining rooms. She was reminiscing before the restaurant’s upcoming move to a location seven blocks away, at 529 Bienville St., occasioned because the restaurant’s landlord, the Louisiana State Museum, declined to renew its lease. Irene’s last night at its current location is Saturday, Jan. 20.
DiPietro took a moment to look at the dark-wood antiques and photo-lined walls and, just above them, the circles marking the spots where wooden barrels hung for years. They had recently been relocated to the Bienville Street location.
“Even though it looks junky to some people, it reminds me of my grandmother’s house,” she said.
Irene’s was less than a third the size it is today when DiPietro first opened with a chalkboard menu of dishes she learned from her family: rosemary chicken, steamed mussels, escargots. The lower Quarter was different then, too. There was less tourist traffic, for starters, and more full-time residents, whom DiPietro quickly won over.
“Not only did they accept us as their little neighborhood restaurant, they’d come and borrow sugar. They’d borrow bread and parsley,” she said. She recalls one early customer telling her on the way out the door, “I feel like someone just hugged me.”
The warmth conveyed by the restaurant has several sources. One is the idiosyncratic space on the bottom floor of an old macaroni factory that dates to 1920. What is now the middle dining room was a space in a parking garage, as was the third room, each of which was colonized by Irene’s at a different time.
The last addition, completed in the early 2000s, is the lounge, which was previously the section of the parking garage where early Irene’s customers waited for tables in what was then a no-reservations restaurant.
“If you waited long enough, you had a chance of dying of carbon monoxide poisoning,” joked Scalco, 46, who started in Irene’s kitchen in 1998 after graduating from cooking school in San Francisco.
“You came on and you started doing the fish and the crab meat, which is very New Orleans, and not so Sicilian,” DiPietro said to her son.
The paneed oysters, crusted with Italian bread crumbs, parsley and parmesan cheese and served as an appetizer with grilled shrimp and spinach salad, is typical of a dish DiPietro considers new school. Scalco points out that his influences, notwithstanding the stint in California, are solidly traditional New Orleans.
“I’ve been working in the French Quarter since I was a little kid,” he said, referring to a collection of restaurants owned by DiPietro’s relatives. Scalco does not recall being pampered on the job.
“When I was really little, (DiPietro) got down in my face and said, ‘When we walk through this door, I’m not your mother. I’m Irene.'”
DiPietro explained, “I didn’t want the rest of the staff to think…”
“Mom,” Scalco interrupted, grinning, “You weren’t fooling anyone. I was six.”
Irene’s Creole-Italian menu is the result of a mother-son collaboration. Like so many restaurants whose popularity comes early and never really wanes, the food reflects the period its first customers became avid fans. That era at Irene’s is one after Sicilian chefs began incorporating local seafood and French influences (like Gulf fish amandine), but before house-cured meats and handmade pastas became the norm.
There are dishes that drift from that script — the cioppino started taking shape during Scalco’s student days in San Francisco — but Irene’s food is mainly true to its roots, in part due to customer demand. DiPietro recalled a time she experimented with some lighter, seasonal dishes in the summertime.
“Irene, if we want lighter food, we’ll go someplace else,” DiPietro said, recalling one diner’s response. “So please, no more cold soups.”
It was nearing dinner time, and Irene’s narrow rooms were on the verge of becoming as packed with guests as they are with knick-knacks. A piano player had begun channeling Tuts Washington in the lounge. Kitchen expediter Haley Richard walked through the entire restaurant holding aloft a hot pan of sizzling garlic and rosemary, an old trick DiPietro adopted to ensure that the kitchen’s aromas find their way to Irene’s every nook and cranny.
In short order, Irene’s became what it has become on every night I’ve visited: a riot of stimulation. Evelyn Wilson took a seat in the lounge around when the piano player started taking requests.
“I’ve been coming here three times a week since 1995,” she said. She likes the ravioli, the soups and the fact that she knows most of the staff by name. Asked what she was drinking, Wilson responded, “It’s something pink that A.J. (McAlear) makes for me.”
Bryan Drude stood nearby, waiting on his table of four. “It’s our favorite neighborhood spot,” he said. While partial to the Gulf fish amandine (black drum on this night), Drude said, “What I like most is Irene and the experience she gives you. It’s like coming to a family gathering.”
Drude expected to return at least once more before Irene’s final night on St. Philip. A second-line from the old address to the new one is planned for Thursday Jan. 25.
Irene’s signature dishes — the tomato bruschetta, the baked oysters, the rosemary chicken – will be much easier to reproduce in the new location than the je ne sais quoi Drude refers to.
Mother and son are both cognizant of the challenge. It’s why they decided to gut the Bienville property, which they had begun turning into a space for a different restaurant project, to recreate as much of the old Irene’s as possible.
“This whole floor plan was different,” Scalco said during a tour of the under-construction new location. “We tried to make each of these rooms like the three dining rooms on St. Philip.”
They are close facsimiles, narrow and wood-lined, and soon they will be populated with the photographs and other decorations from the original Irene’s. (Cuisine, in fact, will not be part of the new location’s name.) The lounge in the new location is much larger, big enough to fit an actual bar, and it leads to a brick patio that feels as big as the three St. Philip dining rooms combined.
The original cypress door that concerns so many customers is migrating as well, though it will no longer serve its original purpose. It’s too short to meet modern building codes, Scalco said, so he plans to mount it on the wall in the new entryway, a reminder of what can and cannot be preserved.
Of Irene’s next chapter, “I’m kind of excited about it,” Scalco says, and then catches himself. “Not kind of. I’m excited about it.”
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com