Dinner at cibugnu can feel like an Italian family affair. Salumi is cured in house, giant plates of handmade pasta approach family-style portions, and blistering, thin-crust pizzas are churned out of a wood-burning oven.
It's pared down and less buzzy than neighboring Marcello's Restaurant & Wine Market and Herbsaint, and the service can feel more like a casual dinner party, with servers who are friendly and attentive, if a bit informal and slow.
Little slipups are easily forgotten, however, when the staff brings out complimentary boards topped with glistening prosciutto di Parma — paper-thin slices with buttery ribbons of fat that melt in your mouth.
There have been some chef and management changes since cibugnu opened two years ago, but managing partner Hillary Barq and chef Nick Vella took over in June and have maintained the restaurant's focus on Sicilian-influenced dishes.
Large hunks of torn sourdough focaccia are drizzled with olive oil and make for rustic bread service. That suffices, but an optional selection of compound butters — earthy truffle and spicy neonata, an Italian fish and pepper condiment — are an indulgent addition.
Some of the appetizers seem forced, as if the chef is stretching beyond the confines of his comfort zone in an attempt to impress. On one visit, a daily crudo preparation of thin yellowtail dressed with shavings of Fresno chilies, honey and sea salt didn't come together. While the honey and jalapeno complemented each other, they felt at odds with the fish. Arugula salad with cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes was fresh but slightly watery and bland, and garlic and Parmesan vinaigrette failed to animate the dish.
The kitchen is better equipped to handle the southern Italian classics on which it prides itself, most notably handmade pastas and pizzas.
Crescent-shaped creste rigate is served in hearty arrabiata ragu made with Two Run Farm beef. The sauce gets a spicy kick with Louisiana green cayenne peppers and clings perfectly to the ridged, chewy noodles, and a healthy sprinkling of Grana Padano cheese ties the dish together. It's classic cold-weather comfort food any nonna would be proud to serve.
Bouncy squid ink linguine tastes deliciously earthy and saline at the same time: charcoal-colored noodles are wrapped in a velvety 'nduja sausage butter, tossed with okra and topped with plump Louisiana Gulf shrimp — the perfect marriage of spice, salt and fat.
Pizzas are of the thin-crust, wood-fired variety and are large enough for several to share. A standout Parmesan creamed corn and shrimp version sounds strange at first but is a showstopper. The buttery corn topping tastes like a bisque but is thicker; crispy, salty slices of speck add deep fatty flavor, which is balanced by heaps of fresh arugula.
While the menu takes a decidedly southern Italian direction, many of the dishes incorporate local ingredients, and okra, seafood and meats sourced from area farms are featured prominently. Black-eyed peas are slow-cooked to a creamy risotto-texture and are topped with thick slices of smoky, wood-fired pork belly and octopus. Layers of summer squash and tomato add texture and acidity to round out the dish.
Weather permitting, it's nice to end an evening outside at one of the sidewalk tables scattered along St. Charles Avenue, taking in the night air and watching the streetcars.
The menu may be Sicilian, but portion sizes are decidedly American. For those still hungry, a short list of desserts includes a rotating selection of house-made gelato and cannoli. It's a final reminder that the simple Italian touches are what cibugnu does best.