La_Mensa_Chef_Matt_Abercrombie_CR_CherylGerber.JPG

Chef Matt Abercrombie serves Italian dishes at La Mensa.

Occupying the longtime space of Maximo’s Italian Grill, La Mensa has brought Italian cuisine back to a bustling block on Lower Decatur Street. With its sleek setting and approachable menu, La Mensa brings a solid happy hour and dinner option to the French Quarter and has an open kitchen so diners can watch dishes being prepared.

More recently, the location was occupied by Trinity, which brightened the space with white marble, and that decor remains largely unchanged except for pops of paint and patterned wallpaper.

Upon entering, patrons find a vast, marble-topped bar which offers an appealing backdrop for cocktails and daily happy hour specials. Table seating continues through the main dining room and alongside the open kitchen where chefs quietly tend to modern Italian dishes.

The menu offers a single page of frequently changing small plates, pizzas, house-made pastas and entrees. Starters such as a board of cured meats, cheeses and salads are designed for sharing. The arancini trio ($11) provided a tasty opening, with crisp exteriors surrounding creamy rice and fillings of lobster, pork ragu and herbed goat cheese atop tomato basil cream. Hearty pork and veal meatballs ($9) taste like they come from a family recipe, sprinkled with fresh herbs and cheese and a side of grilled ciabatta slices for scooping up tomato sugo.

On the lighter side, an octopus salad ($13) with arugula and olives hits a refreshing note with orange, shaved fennel and citrus vinaigrette. A generous portion of squash blossoms came fried to a pleasant crisp and oozed with a warm goat cheese filling.

The menu contains a section dedicated to pizza, including unusual varieties like pineapple with jalapeno, fontina and prosciutto and another with sweet potato, house-made fennel sausage, kale and goat cheese. On one visit, the pizza oven was broken, and on the next visit, a margherita pizza arrived underdone, the crust still doughy. Pizzas are small, about the size of a large dinner plate, and expensive, ranging from $17 for the margherita to $22 for the pineapple.

Among the pastas, the squid ink spaghetti ($27) with mussels, lobster and shrimp in white wine chili-butter sauce offered a satisfying portion of seafood accented by fresh herbs, but the amount of spaghetti beneath the pool of sauce was meager. A serving of creste de gallo ($17), a textured short pasta with a rich sauce of fennel sausage, kale, chili, cream and Parmesan was more abundant.

Gulf fish piccata ($27) was solid if unremarkable, and the fillet came with asparagus and a slightly bland risotto. Other menu appearances paired the fish with house-made spaghetti.

Desserts exhibited some creativity, including a well-presented black cherry tiramisu with an appealing taste and texture.

Wines and house cocktails, like the well-made Negroni, lean Italian, and the bar offers Italian Dolomiti pilsner and rossa beers. Unlike many traditional Italian restaurants, La Mensa does not serve espresso.

Service was welcoming and friendly. Although its location is in the midst of bars and clubs, the restaurant’s operating hours are short, with dinner service ending by 9 p.m. most nights (10 p.m. on Saturdays).

For diners seeking an attractive setting away from the sensory overload of the Quarter, La Mensa provides a comfortable, upscale bar scene with many satisfying dishes.

Contact Rebecca Friedman: rfriedmanfoodnews@gmail.com.