Downtown New Orleans is now teeming with restaurants from familiar local names. The next addition here comes from a few new ones.
Sofia is a modern Italian restaurant that open in late January at 516 Julia St.
With a towering wood-fired pizza oven, a marble-topped dining bar and a casually stylish feel, Sofia is aiming to be an anytime Italian eatery for the neighborhood, with pastas and salads, crudo and meatballs and an overall lighter touch than the local Creole-Italian standard (see opening dinner menu below).
Sofia’s New Orleans connection is Billy Blatty. He started Barcadia and the adjacent Ohm Lounge and Belle’s Diner in the French Quarter. When he got snowed in during a trip to Colorado, he naturally used the time to eat and explore Denver restaurants. Along the way took interest in a Denver restaurant company called Culinary Creative Group.
"From what I saw in them, I knew they would do really well here," said Blatty.
Curiosity turned into discussions and eventually forged a friendship. They began developing Sofia together last year in a corner of the Warehouse District where many new residential developments and their attendant restaurants are now rising.
“We’re interested in de-formalizing fine dining, ripping the pretentiousness out of it,” said Juan Padro, a partner in Culinary Creative Group. “You can come to my bar and have a Margherita pizza and a glass of wine or go baller style, either way.”
Downtown New Orleans is hardly a blank slate for Italian restaurants. In addition to Domenica, which helped set the pace for the modern regional Italian trend here, within blocks there’s Marcello’s and Josephine Estelle. Gianna, a new Italian restaurant from the Link Restaurant Group, is slated to open this spring one block away.
But, you say Italian in this town and people listen. At Sofia, they’ll find a restaurant designed with a colorful, modern look and flexibility for big parties at solo diners to roll up for a meal at the bar or dining counter, facing that wood oven. One unique feature is projection light displays, including one that can change with the weather, the seasons and even for local events (like Carnival or Saints games).
Sofia starts with an approach that has been successful for Culinary Creative at Bar Dough, one of its Denver restaurants.
But Max Mackissock, chef and partner in the group, and Talia Diele, Sofia’s executive chef, both said the chance to work with Gulf seafood and the harvest of a different region were part of their inspiration for the New Orleans restaurant.
“I’m most excited about expanding what we do, taking what we know from Colorado and applying that to a new community and learning from this community,” said Diele.
On the opening menu, look for a dish of spicy greens, mussels and squid all tangled up in black, squid ink tagliarini pasta (like a flattened spaghetti). A three-color mix of beets and hazelnuts and flurries of parmesan top a bed of kale. Buccatini are swirled with guanciale, tomato and basil.
The same oven that makes pizza with clams or creamed leeks and chiles also turns out crusty, salt-flecked loaves of bread.
As this new restaurant took shape between its New Orleans and Denver partners, Sofia has also been the vehicle for some ideas of restaurant community and culture the partners share.
“My parents always taught me you can build a business but you have to be responsible,” said Padro. “How you treat people is important. That’s always a big part of the conversations in our company. You have to be contributing and bringing something to the community.”
To begin, the restaurant has committed to make a grant or scholarship through a new entity called the Sophia Foundation, to assist promising local high school students pursuing music in college. Blatty said the group is committing to a $30,000 contribution now, and will set out a format for awarding it as the restaurant gets rolling.
Sofia opens with dinner Tue.-Sun., 5-10 p.m. (til 11 p.m. Fri. and Sat.), and happy hour from 4-6 p.m., Tue.-Fri. Lunch and brunch hours to come.
516 Julia St., 504-322-3216
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