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Review: Mariza

Ian McNulty goes for Italian in Bywater

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If New Orleans was not specifically pining for a modern coastal Italian dining experience in a refurbished industrial space at the Marigny/Bywater border, you wouldn't know it by the diners filling Mariza.

  Mariza's dining room glows at candlelight wattage but seems to pulse with its own energy. The room is packed with people — at high-top tables and long communal tables, framed by windows and in a loud back room. The busy open kitchen melds with the bar, where one woman hoists a Negroni, the bartender pulls Sicilian wine bottles from ice baths, a cook molds goat cheese ricotta and microgreens over bruschetta and a man slurps oysters at the raw bar.

  Very far from Creole Italian or American Italian, Mariza is more akin to Domenica locally and follows the regional Italian style that chef Mario Batali helped popularize nationally. But this restaurant arrived with its own New Orleans bona fides. Ian Schnoebelen and wife Laurie Casebonne are longtime Bywater residents who also run the French Quarter fine-dining standout Iris.

  Prices at Mariza are moderate, and portions follow suit. Schnoebelen's approach emphasizes big, elemental flavors tailored by a restrained hand. A quail is split, wrapped in pancetta and grilled until dark lines mark the meat. The technique melds smoky flavor with crisp textures and a drizzle of saba, an intense and ancient relative to balsamic vinegar, gives a thick, sweet-sour bite. The rib-eye is unusually lean but still full of flavor and is served Tuscan-style over a bed of bitter, leafy greens. The sashimi-like crudo dressed with olive oil and sea salt dazzles the palate, and the plain-sounding raw vegetable salad proves just as memorable, thanks to its balance, beauty and freshness.

  Platters of cured meats and cheeses are fixtures across the New Orleans dining scene now, but at Mariza they seem indispensible. Watch in particular for a special of cured lamb leg sliced like prosciutto and strewn over herbs and roasted beets.

  Pizzas are not quite the equal of the strictly Neapolitan ones served at Ancora in Uptown, but they make a shareable course for a group sampling across the menu. Pastas are good but generally upstaged by other dishes, and a black, seafood-laden linguine was too muddled compared to the elegant dishes that characterize most of Schnoebelen's food.

  These complaints are quibbles though. The only mistake patrons can make at Mariza is parking in the lot right outside its door. Though this large lot is usually empty by the dinner hour, its owner (unrelated to the restaurant) enforces a round-the-clock towing policy with astonishing vigor.

  Mariza doesn't take reservations, but the potential for chaos at this busy place is smartly eased by the maitre d', who does much more than greet and seat. He orchestrates the room, filling gaps in service and smoothing the wait. That speaks to another dynamic behind Mariza's early success. This is a casual restaurant that still takes hospitality seriously.

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