Some will remember Bob Iacovone from his days helming the kitchen as executive chef at Cuvee, the elegant fine-dining bistro in the Central Business District.
Iacovone left that restaurant in 2009, later working in consulting and catering, before deciding to open his own spot late last year. While his new takeout concept, Iacovone Kitchen, is undeniably distinct from a bistro setting, it's a lateral step, with an ingredients-focused approach that's creative and at times approaches upscale, while still maintaining a moderate price point.
It's also a one-man show, with Iacovone running the small kitchen in the rear of the petite Freret Street space. Here, he mans the stove while chatting with customers and friends who stop by to say hi, while he presses sandwiches, runs the register and carefully arranges food in takeout containers (resulting in some of the most attractive to-go meals you'll come across).
The business model is almost entirely dedicated to takeout, save for one table that serves more as a waiting area than a dining option. White wooden shelves lined with cookbooks, pickled vegetables and homemade condiments from local producers imbue a quaint, homespun atmosphere. Customers can peruse the goods while waiting for an order.
The menu is divided into two categories: daily specials and a more casual selection of rice bowls, salads and sandwiches.
Specials tend to be the more highbrow options, evidence of Iacovone's fine-dining pedigree — including everything from a chilly borscht topped with lemon vodka cream to a summery and sweet corn bisque and ricotta-filled handmade tortelli.
A bright heirloom tomato salad has enjoyed a long stay on the specials menu, most likely for the unbelievably soft hand-pulled mozzarella, made minutes before hitting the plate and still warm and pliable with a rich creaminess that counters the tomatoes' tart acidity. Fresh basil leaves and crispy croutons provide the final layers of flavor and crunch to a winning summer dish.
Because the specials are limited — the daily selection usually includes three to four at most — they can run out quickly. The restaurant's social media posts aren't always updated in a timely manner to reflect that, so diners would be wise to call ahead.
Though the chef's tenure in more upscale kitchens is evident in the thoughtful specials and menu choices (there often is a foie gras special listed), there also seems to be a separate approach for a more casual-leaning customer.
Take the barbecued pulled pork po-boy, a massive item loaded with soft pork bits swaddled in Iacovone's own thick and sweet "heat sauce" (he sells bottles of the stuff at the shop) that's as messy as it is delicious. A tangy Creole coleslaw imparts enough bitterness to cut some of the sweet and fatty elements, while mozzarella cheese helps tie the whole thing together.
A grilled cheese sandwich served on po-boy bread might work better if the restaurant wasn't designed for takeout — the cheese hardens quickly and the bread needs something other than cheese to make the sandwich less dry.
A selection of produce-heavy, lighter options includes salads and rice bowls such as a hearty Indian curry version that on one visit included a garam masala-spiced medley of cauliflower, summer squash and sweet potatoes topped with toasted almonds, lightly pickled carrots, a sweet mango chutney and a cooling yogurt — a creative joining of flavors that was unique and surprising.
With a creative approach that focuses equally on fresh ingredients, quality and convenience, Iacovone Kitchen provides a welcome answer to the question, "What's for dinner?"