If you're looking for classic Italian comfort food, this West Bank spot has a menu for you. Specialty Italian Bistro (2330 Belle Chasse Highway, Gretna, 504-391-1090; www.specialtyitalianbistro.com) is a family-owned restaurant that brings Old World Italian food into the modern age. Opened in 1991 by Patrick Himel's father, the restaurant now has an app that customers can use to find coupons or place orders. With "25 years' worth of menu tinkering," there is quite a lot to choose from.
A CPA by trade, Himel learned about the food service industry from his father, who once owned a restaurant called Bayou Barn Bistro in the late 1970s. "It serviced people along the Harvey Canal, and it was pretty big," he says. "The grounds were really picturesque, and that lasted about three years."
Now operated by Himel and his brother Troy (after their father "kind of dragged [them] into it at some point"), Specialty Italian Bistro serves Italian dishes with a Cajun twist. Local customers who followed the restaurant after it moved to its current location in 2003 keep coming back for the original recipes created there.
"You try to reinvent yourself a little bit with different items," Himel says. "You've got to stay with the times, but you've also got to stay consistent."
The secret to running this thriving restaurant, he says, lies in the balance between quality ingredients and creative menu concepts. "You want them coming back and you want the food to taste good," he says.
A customer favorite starts with a base of breaded, baked eggplant medallions topped with shrimp and artichoke bisque. "People just eat that up like it's nobody's business," he says. The bistro also offers seafood gumbo, which Himel admits is not Italian, "but we do it anyway because it's Louisiana."
As a West Bank native, Himel understands the importance of offering good food in an area he considers "off the beaten path."
"We are on the highway, but we're not in Metairie, we're not downtown ... but it's familiar and in a lot of ways it's home," he says.
Inside Specialty Italian Bistro, a boat from the Polynesian Pavilion of the 1984 Louisiana World's Exposition is repurposed as a counter.
"We kind of converted it," Himel says. "We thought, 'Hey! It'll be an Italian gondola.' We had it for years and years, so when we moved, we took the boat with us."
Himel hopes to increase the restaurant's wine and beer offerings with an expanded bar menu and plans to add outdoor seating.
"You've got to change," he says. "That's how it all works."