There are many types of Italian restaurants in New Orleans, including down-home Creole-Italian joints, classic trattorias with Sicilian roots and rustic, Northern Italian-inspired eateries.
At Altamura, there's an East Coast influence, as the elegant new restaurant from ManhattanJack duo Jack Petronella and chef Coleman Jernigan pays tribute to spots in New Jersey and Manhattan where Petronella ate as a child. On weekend evenings, a piano player holds court on the restaurant's baby grand, and it's likely diners will hear a Frank Sinatra tune or two, which evokes an Empire state of mind.
The restaurant is named for the hillside region in Puglia, Italy from which Petronella's grandparents emigrated. The menu features a heavy Northeastern accent, and it isn't your standard red sauce joint. Instead, the menu reflects the restaurant's elegant surroundings, a 19th-century mansion that also functions as a boutique hotel.
Clams arrive on tiny shells, covered in a blanket of bacon bits and diced green and red bell peppers in Clams Casino. One of the most interesting — and decadent — starters is spiedini mozzarella, in which a bundle of crusty bread layers and thick slices of mozzarella are fried as a whole and served with buttery lemon, caper and anchovy sauce. The oozing cheese and crispy exterior get an acidic kick from the lemon and capers and pair perfectly with the anchovy's umami-rich funk.
On my first visit, our server didn't mention the option of bread service, but on another visit, half of a crusty country loaf arrived glistening with olive oil and fresh, pungent garlic bits.
There's not much on the menu that could be described as light, but an excellent tri colore salad is simple and satisfying, with bitter endive, radicchio and arugula in a punchy balsamic vinaigrette.
The menu's lengthy list of entrees includes pasta dishes and interpretations of Italian classics. Veal piccata is cooked scallopine-style, and thin slices of meat stayed surprisingly milky and tender, served draped in a buttery lemon emulsion with capers. An outstanding pasta dish features light-as-air ricotta gnocchi covered in a hearty Bolognese made with beef, pork and veal. Equally satisfying are the spaghetti and meatballs, a classic rendition featuring hearty, golf ball-sized meatballs and bright red sauce.
There were a few misfires. Fried calamari was bland and felt like a perfunctory inclusion on the menu. It needed seasoning if not an overhaul. A skimpy portion of braised artichoke hearts was overpriced compared to the menu's many generous options.
Dessert features simple dishes such as traditional tiramisu, a coffee-laced, mascarpone-rich decadence that's a good example of what the kitchen here does best: interpret classic dishes with finesse.