Dining should be more than just a vehicle to sate hunger pangs; it should bring alive a range of senses, emotions and enjoyment that make it memorable. That's the attitude with which Chef Duke LoCicero, owner of Cafe Giovanni (117 Decatur St., 529-2154; www.cafegiovanni.com) approaches every dish and every customer at his restaurant.
"What we give here, what I feel makes us different, is an experience," says LoCicero. "It's not just having a cocktail or a meal. Food is a lot of things: food is religious, it is spiritual, it is sensual. Watching people when they love what you're doing (with the food) takes it to another level."
The words "typical Italian cuisine" don't apply at Cafe Giovanni. LoCicero and Sous Chef Michael Mehiel make certain of that, keeping the evolving menu -- which is revamped seasonally, including a change to winter fare this week -- exciting and constantly updated with new Louisiana seafood and Creole specials each week. That quest to consistently surprise even regulars and impart new taste sensations has won LoCicero and Cafe Giovanni more than a dozen awards and special citations over the years, including USA Chef of the Year in 2002, four-time winner of the Louisiana Gold Culinary Classic Medal and many more.
"I really love what I do," LoCicero says. "I couldn't see myself doing anything else." Part of the excitement for him is the adventure of inventing new taste treats. "You have to change and keep the menu fresh," he says. "We've been very lucky for 13 years to keep Giovanni's new, always changing."
Adding to the enjoyment of the food itself is the atmosphere of the elegant dining room, a space that feels comfortably roomy but still cozy and even has a patio for special parties. The service is attentive but never rushed and the wine and cocktail menus are filled with premium brands and lots of choices. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, a pianist and opera singer entertain during dinner hours. For added convenience, Cafe Giovanni offers discounted parking, $5 for four hours, at the nearby Marriott Hotel.
Open just a month ago at the restaurant is the new Belli Baci lounge (Italian for "beautiful kisses"), which has an elegant and inviting atmosphere. The walls and velvet curtains are luscious red, there are cushy leather love seats in addition to conventional bar tables and chairs, and the music is a random mix of everyone's favorites, ranging from jazz to pop to Frank Sinatra. Customers can have appetizers or an entire meal there.
LoCicero approaches cocktails the way he does his food menu in the main restaurant, starting each concoction with fresh ingredients made from scratch in house, including the flavored simple syrups used in the specialty drinks. One of the best items is his signature bloody Mary spiced with a dose of Chef Duke's special hot sauce made with roasted habanera peppers. This hot sauce, seven different tomato sauces and a line of special seasonings can be purchased at the restaurant as well as at www.chefduke.com.
The restaurant is open for lunch on Fridays and dinner every night.
At Home with Beauty
The world is a beautiful place to Cynthia Brannan, manager of Royal Crescent Interiors (4118 Magazine St., 891-5600), especially when she looks around the 6-year-old Uptown shop at the homey vignettes she's created to show off all the furniture and decorative accessories available at the store.
"Just looking around makes me happy," she says. "It's beautiful surroundings with beautiful things."
Brannan, who shops for the store at market as well as managing it day to day, says she endeavors to keep a range of merchandise in stock, including furniture, lamps, silk flower arrangements, vases, artworks, and even decorative soaps.
"We have a mixture of things," Brannan says. "We have some English and a couple of French furniture pieces, hand-painted furniture, and I'm going to be getting more Italian walnut pieces, hopefully in the beginning of next year."
Popular sellers include aubusson and woven pillows from China, reproductions of classic lamp styles in porcelain, tole and wood, candleholders, statuary, antique botanicals and other uncommon finds.
"I have an open mind (when I go to market), she says. "If I fall in love with it, I buy it and just find a place for it in the shop. I'm always looking for new vendors and something that is a little different, but high quality." Just walking in the shop, you might think you are in a high-end antiques store, until you notice the reasonable prices, and Brannan attributes much of that impression to the layout. "Since it is a cottage, we like to present the pieces as if they were in your own home," she says. "I enjoy decorating it and moving things around, giving it a new look about once a month or so." She also will go to people's homes to help them decide what in the store will look best in their house and will even shop for special items a customer wants when she goes to market.
- Chef Duke LoCicero toasts with his signature bloody Mary at his newly opened Belli Baci Lounge at Cafe Giovanni in the French Quarter.