New Orleans' Italian roots run deep, and Oak Oven co-founders John Matassa, Thomas Macaluso and chef Adam Superneau are shining a spotlight on the city's Sicilian heritage at their new restaurant with dishes that combine classic, rustic cooking techniques with elevated takes on some Italian dishes.
Located in a converted Popeyes in Harahan, the Oak Oven space has been transformed into a minimalist vintage-meets-modern affair, complete with walls covered in oversized portraits of Italians in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. Superneau's commitment to locally sourced ingredients is obvious, with bursts of vegetative color sprinkled throughout the restaurant, including Cento tomato cans converted into pots for growing herbs.
Oak Oven's concrete floors and high ceilings, however, prove to be a challenge on nights when it is particularly busy, as the space becomes a cacophonous echo chamber. On Friday and Saturday evenings, Oak Oven overflows with families waiting for tables, making dinner feel hurried and cramped. First time diners may want to visit on a weekday evening when the ambience is more sedate and less full of younger diners practicing their karate skills.
Drink options are limited to soda fountain basics served in large mason jars and a passable list of beers and wine. The beverage standout is a refreshing, deep aubergine-hued hibiscus-honey tea reminiscent of an Arnold Palmer with a floral kick.
Pizzas are cooked in a wood-burning oven using strictly Louisiana oak wood and they are exceptional across the board. This Neapolitan-style has seen a recent local and national resurgence, and Oak Oven adheres to the Italian tradition masterfully, with thin, crisp, well-charred crusts that serve as perfect foundations for well-portioned toppings. The classic margherita — topped with house-made mozzarella, fresh basil and a drizzle of olive oil — is a prime example of how simplicity can be decadent. It also maintains a crackly crust throughout and avoids the soggy-middle pitfall of many Neapolitan pies, ensuring that diners don't have to pick up a knife and fork.
The maiale pie is loaded with finely crafted cured meats including roasted pork, sweet fennel-flecked sausage and bacon, putting many "meat lovers" pizzas to shame. The lamb meatball pizza is equally exciting, with pools of creamy ricotta serving as the perfect foil to the cumin and coriander notes of tender, crumbly lamb.
The antipasti dishes are flavorful and diverse enough to sustain a meal of strictly small plates. Frutti di golfo is a refreshing, ceviche-like combination of lemon-kissed shrimp and crab in caper-heavy marinade served with a velvety roasted artichoke. Wood-fired Tuscan-style beef, though slightly tough, has a deep flavor profile when combined with tangy Gorgonzola and a dash of balsamic vinegar.
When you venture beyond pizza and small plates, the options get dicey. Many traditional Italian entrees have hit-or-miss flavor and texture combinations that are more reminiscent of an evening at Olive Garden than the elevated Italian fare available elsewhere on Oak Oven's menu. The fritte miste — a rustic Italian dish comprised of flash-fried seafood — is a plate of deep-fried seafood coated in bland, thick, under-seasoned batter. The $22 price also is difficult to swallow. Pork ragu-topped pasta — featuring house-made frattura — arrived watery and thin, with limp, overcooked noodles that stuck together in unappetizing clumps. While the meat was flavorful, the dish's overall gummy texture left something to be desired. House-made pappardelle also was overcooked, but the dish was redeemed by the acidic, clean flavors of shrimp, artichoke and smoky fire-roasted tomatoes scattered on top.
There's a purposeful push and pull at Oak Oven between high-end, slow food-driven Italian cooking and the comforting appeal of Americanized classics. This leaves some of the restaurant's dishes in a state of limbo, but there are few finer options for pizza in New Orleans.