Sicilian heritage and New Orleans cooking are so closely entwined that in some settings they’re practically one, and Nick Lama’s family roots reach deep into this tradition.
But for his own first restaurant, Avo (5908 Magazine St., 504-509-6550; restaurantavo.com), the young chef is working from a different intersection than the familiar Creole-Italian.
“My idea here is to mix Italian and Southern, with local flavors and ingredients,” Lama said. “We’re taking classic Italian and adding a little younger, more modern approach.”
Lama plans to open Avo by Friday (May 22) in the former Martinique Bistro. A renovation has opened up its small dining room, enlarged the bar and polished the property’s cornerstone feature — a walled patio under a retractable roof.
It’s taking shape as a high-aiming Italian restaurant, though one where the menu stays down to earth. There’s spaghetti with clams and sausage, for instance, and short rib lasagna. Grilled peaches and vanilla syrup join an arugula and burrata cheese salad and octopus is finished with grapefruit, mint and salmoriglio, a zesty Sicilian sauce of parsley and garlic, oil and lemon. The menu also finds room for chicken wings, with watermelon, radish and pepper jelly.
“I like simple, bold flavors, take four or five ingredients and let them speak for themselves,” Lama said.
Lama was previously chef de cuisine at Gautreau’s, that rightfully acclaimed Uptown fine dining den, and he’s been tapped to compete on cable food shows. For some, though, the panel-sized vintage photos around his dining room may resonate more than his résumé.
There’s one showing his great-grandparents at Bizot’s Beer Garden, the long-gone Mid-City bar they once owned. There’s his grandfather at the St. Roch Market, which his family ran for some 50 years. There’s his grandmother, Ann Maucele Saia, known to generations in New Orleans for her Ann Maucele School of Dance.
Avo is an Italian word for ancestor, and the chef’s intended tribute to his own family is abundantly clear. Balancing that heritage with an appreciation for modern tastes will be the task for the kitchen.
“Italian food is all about quality of ingredients, what’s in proximity and what’s in season,” Lama said. “If we stick to that, I feel it’s true to the core of Italian cooking.”
Avo will serve dinner Monday and Wednesday though Saturday and brunch on Sunday, with expanded hours to come.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.