Diligent foodies who keep current with the trends are supposed to know by now that “real” Italian cooking should always be seasonal, that it can be light and that it is a different animal from the typical Italian American food.
This has been a major inspiration for many new restaurants, and it has really improved the range of Italian flavors available to us. But does it mean we have to throw off our affection for the favorites we grew up eating? Are we supposed to ignore a soft spot for paneed meat enrobed in red sauce and encased in melted cheese?
I don’t think so and evidently neither do the guys who opened Oak Oven over the winter in Harahan. The chef Adam Superneau and business partners Thomas Macaluso and John Matassa — all New Orleans natives and first-time restaurateurs — are combining the guiding principles of regional Italian cooking from the Old Country with elements familiar from our own local Creole Italian cooking. The result is a mid-range, modern neighborhood restaurant that feels equal parts contemporary and comfortable in a setting that is ... well, we’ll get to that.
First though, the menu. It’s straightforward and short but makes room for both a deftly grilled snapper ($21) with big mushrooms and bigger knuckles of crabmeat over spaghetti in Sicilian pesto (made with tomatoes) and also a textbook veal Parmigiana ($16) with a leopard pattern of golden bubbles across its veneer of cheese.
The wood-fired oven is central to the operation, and that starts with the pizza. Oak Oven’s pizza ($13-$15) is in line with the Neapolitan tradition followed by other local specialists in the form, like Ancora, Dolce Vita or Domenica. But, showing the room for variations even within a regional style, these are thinner and crisper than those other pies, with more crackle to the crust. Slightly sour fontina and the creamy crumble of ricotta played off each other on the formaggi pie, while for another pizza fresh basil and red chile set off the herbaceous savor of lamb meatballs, sliced and embedded in the cheese and bubble-pocked surface.
Most first courses options are small and precise, like thick slices of roasted Tuscan-style beef ($10) under earthy layers of mushroom and Gorgonzola and traced by a balsamic reduction with the tang of juniper, or the cool fruitti di Golfo ($11), with crab and shrimp and roasted artichoke left largely to speak for themselves in a tomato and caper marinade.
“Small and precise” are not terms we generally apply to anything at neighborhood Italian restaurants, but from here Oak Oven can roll out a thick and hearty pork ragu over broad, tender noodles ($9/$15) or a seafood platter ($22) that, aside from its artichoke aioli, would be at home at a local seafood house that prides itself on skilled fryer work.
Gelato ($4) is the only dessert option but comes in especially interesting flavors, including caramel with the slight bitterness of pine nuts worked in, and the beer and wine list is full of labels familiar from a well-stocked grocery store.
Having something for everyone — including a kids menu ($5-$6) — means Oak Oven isn’t quite the adventurous romp of some other modern Italian restaurants. But quality is high, freshness is evident, prices are reasonable and the atmosphere certainly is unique.
In a sign of how competitive restaurant real estate has become lately, Oak Oven was built into a former Popeyes fried chicken location. The renovation was comprehensive, but the stencil of the old fast food franchise is hard to completely erase. The floor plan, for instance, is still engineered for the counter service and drive-through business of the building’s old life, with a big kitchen and relatively small dining room. As a full service restaurant today, that means it doesn’t take much of a rush to fill this place.
Still, the room is comfortable and stylish in an endearing way, with tomato cans turned into herb planters and poster-sized images of the owners’ Italian ancestors making one wall into a giant photo album. It all feels like an act of salvage and creative reuse, turning a former chain into a highly personal restaurant in synch both with traditions and the moment.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.